Night, Mother will hit a nerve with some people. When Jessie calmly announces to her mother that she intends to kill herself, in a couple of hours, a barrage of emotions between mother and daughter ensue. The play written by American playwright, Marsha Norman revolves around the taboo subject of suicide. It won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for the Tony Award for best play. It is obvious that the play is not going to lift spirits so it’s best to view it with an open mind as to the delivery of the content. There’s a saying amongst drama teachers that ‘actors shouldn’t “act”’. The performances given by Del Halpin who played Thelma Cates and Amy McDonald who played her daughter, Jessie were delivered with such conviction that I found myself captivated from start to finish. They delivered the dialogue, in American accents, with such ease that it didn’t appear they were acting at all. They were consummate professionals and received a standing ovation for their efforts.
The story is simple enough. Jessie announces, matter-of-factly, that she is going to kill herself with her father’s gun. Strangely enough she has spent months planning her suicide to the smallest detail, including ensuring that her mother’s dress was washed and pressed ready to wear at her funeral, yet she didn’t know where her father’s gun was, or whether it was functional for that matter. Whether this was intentional to keep you guessing as to whether Jessie would or would not go through with her suicide due to a malfunction, I will leave unsaid. You’ll need to watch to see what happens and take the dreaded journey of seeing how frustrating it would be trying to reason with a person in this state of mind.
One of the most interesting lines I found in the play was:
“Mama, I know you used to ride the bus. Riding the bus and it’s hot and bumpy and crowded and too noisy and more than anything in the world you want to get off and the only reason in the world you don’t get off is it’s still fifty blocks from where you’re going? Well, I can get off right now if I want to, because even if I ride fifty more years and get off then, it’s the same place when I step down to it. Whenever I feel like it, I can get off. As soon as I’ve had enough, it’s my stop. I’ve had enough.”
If only she had thought to take another bus route instead of riding the same bus. The years of monotonous living with her mother, after a failed marriage and the disappointment of a delinquent son, had taken its toll on Jessie. It becomes apparent during this moment of crisis that mother and daughter had never really spoken to one another. Their lives had been about physical duties. Emotional nourishment had been non-existent causing an isolation that resulted in an irreparable hopelessness in Jessie, possibly caused when her father died. Her father appeared to be the only source of emotional connection; the only person who loved her unconditionally. She loved her husband but his love was fickle and didn’t last and her son was on his own path of self-destruction. She didn’t agree with her mother that she had married the wrong man. She believed he was right for her and didn’t regret the marriage.
As for her mother…the questions they had always wanted to ask each other but never dared finally surfaced. Jessie questioned whether Thelma had loved her father, knowing in her heart that she hadn’t. Perhaps she felt her mother’s feelings extended to her since the only relationship they had was keeping each other company and going through the motions of daily living. Eerily, she had come to a moment of clarity when, after a year of not having any epileptic seizures, she was finally well enough to make the radical decision to end her life. There is little logic in Jessie’s decision. Whatever it was that flicked her switch is the most perplexing part of this story. We listen, but don’t quite understand why Jessie is so adamant to end her life. Her calmness about her decision is unsettling. She is icy and disconnected and completely unaffected by her mother’s pleas to reconsider.
There is no intermission in this play. There is a large clock on the wall, set at the correct time, which is strategically placed so that we subconsciously watch the minutes ticking by knowing that Thelma is running out of time to convince Jessie why life is worth living. Attempts to phone for help are unsuccessful. What I found strange is that Thelma never made an attempt to take the gun off Jessie. Her words held no power but the gun remained in Jessie’s possession. As a mother, I would have fought tooth and nail to take the gun away. The fact that their conversation appeared so clinical is perhaps the basis for Jessie’s decision. We are left to wonder whether Thelma’s arguments opposing Jessie’s decision came from selfish motives to have someone look after her in her old age? There are many unanswered questions in this play that you are left to take away with you.
Director, Barry Gibson has done a fine job with casting, set design and blocking the scenes to ensure this wordy play doesn’t flat line. Sound and lighting were very effective and certainly enhanced the audience’s experience. There are a few heart-stopping moments and well spiced humour to sweeten the sourness of the topic. Marsha Norman is to be credited on her balance of humour and dramatic moments that was perfectly timed to keep the audience’s interest.
Night, Mother was performed at Javeenbah Theatre, Nerang, QLD from 27 January to 11 February 2017
Directed by: Barry Gibson
Assistant Director: Nathan Schulz
Stage Manager: Nathan Schulz
Sound Design: Nathan Schulz
Lighting Design: Colin Crow
Set Design: Barry Gibson
Video promo: Craig Smith
Thelma Cates played by Del Halpin
Jessie Cates played by Amy McDonald
Reviewed on 28 January 2017 by Jacquelin Melilli
Also reviewed on WeekendNotes: www.weekendnotes.com/night-mother-presented-by-javeenbah-theatre-theatre-review/