REVIEW: ‘night, Mother by Marsha Norman

Caroline Lee & Esther van Doornum in night, Mother
Photo: Pia Johnson

While her mother Thelma is looking through the kitchen for a particular sweet to eat, Jessie is in the attic looking for her father’s gun. Thelma wonders what Jessie needs a gun for, living out in the country and hardly ever leaving home. Jessie explains, calmly, that she is going to kill herself.

Jessie is living at home with her mother because she has epilepsy and is unemployable because of her seizures. Jessie’s marriage has broken down and her son is a criminal. She also, as far as I could tell, has depression – but the play never makes this explicit.

Marsha Norman’s 1982 work won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The same year, Sam Shepard’s True West, was shortlisted for the prize. Shepard’s play gets produced all the time, but this was the first chance I’ve had to see ‘night, Mother.

In many ways the play feels like a time capsule, and Iron Lung Theatre’s production drives that home with a detailed period set by Juliette Whitney. The rotary dial phone. The step stool. The furniture that is from decades even further past. This is 1982.

The relationship between Jessie and Thelma is clearly drawn. Over the ninety-minute play, we are there in the living room and kitchen with these characters as they deal with Jessie’s pronouncement that she will be dead by morning. Thelma wants to understand what has brought Jessie to this point. Jessie merely says it’s the next thing she wants to try.

Suicide and suicidal ideation are tricky subjects to deal with. Norman’s script gives us too clear and simple of a set up; it’s Chekhov’s gun writ large. What we are watching is a classic tragedy; we know what’s coming, we are just waiting for it to happen. And this is my major problem with the play – it doesn’t glorify Jessie’s choice, but it doesn’t really confront her illness in a compelling way.

The spiky mother/daughter relationship is only occasionally potent under Briony Dunn’s direction. Esther van Doornum is restrained in her portrayal of Jessie, while Caroline Lee’s mannered performance as Thelma made her hard to engage with. And their American accent work is variable throughout.

Much of the story of these two women is about them not communicating or missing each other’s points, leaving much of the emotion to be uncovered in the final stretch of the play. And those final ten minutes are very moving.

‘night, Mother’s portrayal of mental illness plants it firmly in the past and this production doesn’t quite get to grips with how it should deal with this subject matter thirty years hence.