Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

'Night Mother
Dark & Stormy Productions
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule (newly updated)

Also see Arty's review of Dear Lenny: Bernstein's Life in Songs and Letters


Sally Wingert and Sara Marsh
Photo by Rich Ryan
Every once in a while a play is so perfectly cast that it would be hard to imagine, moving forward, ever seeing it with anyone else in the roles. In Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize winning 'Night, Mother, being staged by the ever-adventurous Dark & Stormy Productions, Sally Wingert and Sara Marsh appear not to be playing the mother-daughter roles of Thelma Cates and Jessie Cates, respectively, but to have removed themselves from the stage and been replaced by the real Thelma and Jessie. We are no longer an audience, but observers to the bracingly real last stand between Thelma, a survivor in the face of a life of disappointments, and Jessie, too defeated to feel anything, even disappointment. This is riveting theater that challenges our core beliefs.

'Night, Mother begins quite mundanely. It is Saturday night in the Cates' well-worn looking home, on an isolated street near a small town. Thelma is perched on the sofa, munching on one cellophane-wrapped candy after another and calling out to Jessie which of the sweets need to be replenished. Jessie enters the room and we learn that the big Saturday night event for these two is Jessie giving Thelma her weekly manicure. What sounds like an uneventful existence quickly spirals into a tense battle of wills when Jessie, calm as can be, tells Thelma that a few hours hence she will kill herself. Thelma first thinks this to be a tasteless joke, than desperately tries to dissuade Jessie from taking this irrevocable action. In the process we learn that Jessie moved back home with her widowed mother after her own marriage ended in divorce. Jessie has a seizure disorder, though her meds have kept that at bay for a year now. Moreover, she is profoundly depressed. Her young adult son is a petty thief, her success at low-level jobs has been zero, and her depressed state makes her unable to leave the house or engage the occasional visitor in conversation. The primary purpose of her life seems, to Jessie, to take care of her mother—though she suspects Thelma of feigning helplessness just to give Jessie something to do.

Jessie has made up a list of things her mother will need to know after she is gone—things like what day the trash goes out, where the spare light bulbs are, the minimum tab for the grocery to deliver, who to speak to at the candy shop to restock the candies Thelma seems to thrive on, and the like. Jessie's brother and sister-in-law, who live nearby, should be of some help to Thelma, though they have given no solace to Jessie. As Jessie ticks off housekeeping details, Thelma tries to pry from Jessie why she wants to take her life, searching for something she can do or say to stop her. But Jessie has thought through the alternatives that might somehow erase the pain of her empty life. She admits that other actions might work, but she is through with uncertainty and has decided that killing herself is the only plan guaranteed to work.

Marsha Norman's script is beautifully written. It incorporates all the intricacies of this challenging mother-daughter relationship, with secrets each has held within, confidences they have shared, the unspoken expectations they have had of one another, grievances, inside jokes, and through it all, love that runs involuntarily through their veins. One can question the logic in Jessie's decision to tell her mother in advance of pulling the trigger. Jessie says it is in order to review the list of household information her mother will need moving forward, and then give her mom a last manicure. But given the blaze of emotions provoked by Jessie's announcement, Thelma is hardly interested in details of taking out the trash or changing lightbulbs, nor does she care about having her nails done. Rather, it gives Thelma the added burden of knowing in advance what Jessie plans to do, and be unable to stop it. Perhaps Norman meant this as a parting wound for Jessie to lay on her mother's lap, though that notion runs counter to Jessie's gentle demeanor, blaming no one and wanting nothing but to carry out her plan.

'Night Mother was written in 1981, though the program gives the setting as 2004, which is the year of a short-lived Broadway revival. Perhaps not in 1981, but by 2004 one hopes the medical professionals treating Jessie's seizures would have detected her underlying depression and offered treatment for that condition as well. Might that have led Jessie to a happier, or at least more viable life? It is hard to say, but the absence of that thread in the plot certainly leads one to wonder.

Even with these gaps in logic, 'Night Mother is a powerfully stirring testament to the need for us to find meaning and purpose in life, as well as to the complexity of relationships between parent and child, giving and receiving life itself. Put in the hands of the marvelously talented Sally Wingert and Sara Marsh, this sturdy play rises to a transcendent level. Wingert portrays Thelma without any vanity, stopping at nothing to convey a mother facing her darkest fear. Marsh manages to tone down her natural radiance and express the emptiness and resolution that guide Jessie's hand, with the realization that at least she has found a way to take agency upon her own condition. Director Hayley Finn draws out the tension throughout the play's ninety minutes, as if an unstoppable ticking clock hangs over the heads, not only of Jessie and Thelma, but over all of us.

Marsh also designed the set, an intriguing concept in which everything, except a homey sofa that provides a shelter for Thelma, is suspended from the ceiling: a rocking chair and candy dish beside it, and a wall-length kitchen unit. It suggests a life ungrounded, untethered to the earth. Sound and lighting design are well conceived, adding to the play's emotional weight, while the costumes convey the unadorned lives or folks removed from the arena of trends or fashion. An unattractive long grey sweater-coat worn by Marsh, as Jessie, adds some bulk to the actor's slight frame.

Marsha Norman's 37-year-old play continues to delve into the deepest questions of our search for meaning and purpose in life, working through believable characters chained together in a relationship that both supports and chafes at them both. Thankfully, the playwright has peppered it with occasional humor to make the sadness of its basic premise bearable. Dark & Stormy Productions knows how to work with this kind of challenging material, giving 'Night, Mother a definitive staging that will be long remembered as an example of the excellence found on Twin Cities stages.

'Night, Mother, through September 8, 2018, at Dark & Stormy Productions in the Grain Belt Warehouse, 77 13th Avenue N.E, Studio 201, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $39.00, under age 30 tickets: $15.00. For tickets call 612-401-4506 or go to www.darkstormy.org.

Playwright: Marsha Norman; Director: Haley Finn; Assistant Director: Michaela Johnson; Set Design: Sara Marsh; Costume Design: Lisa Jones; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: Andrew Lee Dolan; Properties Design: Sarah Salisbury; Stage Manager: Rachael Rhodes; Technical and Design Consultant: Michael James; Producer: Myron Frisch.

Cast: Sara Marsh (Jessie Cates), Sally Wingert (Thelma Cates).


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