Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother is a difficult piece. Painful, frustrating, frank in its depiction of the broken world and Jessie’s decision to take her own life and share this plan with her mother, Thelma. Thelma’s attempts to dissuade Jessie are like tiny beacons of hope that nonetheless fail. Norman baptizes us in Jesse’s despair, it’s a bit shocking how plain the details and resigned she is to finally have some hand in her personal narrative, even if the outcome seems the very definition of a Pyrrhic Victory. Like, say, Leaving Las Vegas, where the protagonist is distracted just long enough to let us ache for some kind of reprieve, Mama desperately tries to convince Jesse there must be another way, and we, too, are caught up in the need to salvage this lamb, too discouraged to do anything but lay her neck upon the stump. It’s hard going, and Jesse’s calm, disaffected sense of purpose soaks into us like wet smoke. It’s chilling, really, how Marsha Norman pulls us into gradually into the abyss with Jesse, without, say, the bleakness or ballast of an Ingmar Bergman film. It’s as if the cheery, coziness of the familiar, domestic nest with its warmth and reassurance is there to throw the awfulness into high relief.
On an ordinary Saturday night, Jesse prepares to give her mother a manicure. She goes over her lists to make sure Mama has her groceries and candies to nibble on, and everything she needs when she will no longer be there to take care of her. Pretty early on, she tells Mama she will not be around much longer. At first her mother thinks she’s joking, but she catches on. After awhile Jesse’s refusal to debate, her explanation that life offers no respite from the steady succession of disappointments, soaks into our marrow like delicate voodoo. When Jesse runs to her bedroom and slams the door, Thelma bangs and pounds, hysterically. It goes through you like an ice dagger.
Jessica Cavanaugh (Jesse) and Amber Devlin (Thelma) are understated and authentic as they invite us into the relationship a mother and daughter create when they live together as adults. Jesse’s self-esteem has been so diminished over the years that any attempts to steer her vessel to benign waters seem pointless. We keep wanting her to climb into Thelma’s lap until that radiant embrace melts away all the woundedness and grief. Ironically (though I’m sure Norman knows) Thelma cares so much, it perhaps blinds her to the best strategy to save her daughter. She doesn’t know to translate her deep maternal love into purposeful action. Norman seems to be finding that Jesse’s one-way ticket to silence comes from her connection to Thelma, that even running away from everything she knows would be better than turning out the lights. Jesse doesn’t know how to be “selfish” though it just might save her.
Director Christie Vela, Cavanaugh and Devlin have collaborated to bring us this impeccable, somber nocturne. What glorious talent. Like me, you may find yourself grieving for that touching, inconsolable lamb.
Echo Theatre presents ‘night, Mother, playing September 8th-24th, 2016. Bath House Cultural Center, 521 East Lawther Drive, Dallas, Texas 75218. 214-904-0500. www.echotheatre.org