By Pat Launer
It starts out as just another Saturday evening at home: a time for shared cocoa and a manicure. But, five minutes in the intense one-act drama, ’Night, Mother, Jessie asks about the location of “Daddy’s gun,” then announces, “I’m going to kill myself, Mama.” And she means tonight, which we pretty much live through with her in real time.
Her mother tries desperately, for the rest of the 90 minutes, to get Jessie to change her mind — and to find out why there’s no other option. She fights, she screams, she exhorts, she gives alternate suggestions. Horrible things are said, on both sides. Terrible secrets are revealed, long-held, hurtful truths that were never shared before. It’s an emptying out — paralleling the vacant picture frames that adorn the neat-but-shabby set (designed by Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza, with well-chosen, detailed props by Dino Grulli).
Marsha Norman’s play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. Subliminally, it poses many questions about suicide: Is it an escape from unbearable agony? (After chronicling her lifetime of missteps and failures, Jessie says she just wants to “get off the bus.”) Or is it a hostile, pain-inflicting act directed at those who stay behind? And if so, what does it mean when a daughter chooses to tell her mother in advance, to give her a whole evening of fore-knowledge that she has no ability to affect or deflect?
Studies of suicidal sufferers reveal that many of them prepare scrupulously, getting all their affairs in meticulous order. Jessie has systematically organized everything in her mother’s house, where she’s lived since her divorce, hiding away with her epilepsy, her despondency and her hopelessness, for herself and her wayward son, a criminal-in-the-making. It’s not a life anyone would envy. Neither is her relationship with her mother.
It’s gut-wrenching to watch this final, emotional pas de deux. Under the taut direction of Glenn Paris, who tightens the tension and lets the piece breathe in just the right places, Yolanda Franklin and Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson are devastating.
Though both were nursing head/chest colds on the night I was there (the sniffling and coughing were successfully folded into the characters), they set out a platter of frantic desperation and quiet despair. Franklin’s Jessie is calm and assured; this is the one and only time she’s able to take full control of her life. Thompson’s Thelma will do anything, try anything, say anything, to change Jessie’s mind. But her efforts at sensitivity, at trying to understand her daughter’s needs, are far too little, way too late.
Thelma fears for her future and Jessie helpfully tells her what to wear to the funeral, even what to say, along with giving instructions about how to work the washing machine, and where to find her beloved candies. She will be helpless without the daughter who has done everything, and said almost nothing for years. Thelma has spent her life in denial; will this confrontation with reality at last change her in any way? The aftermath is left to the imagination.
Following a shattering reading of the play last November, this full, Off-the-Radar ion theatre production is outstanding. It’s yet another in ion’s string of theater risk-taking; a piece this deep and dark is not for everyone (though it is, surprisingly, laced with humor, and Paris and Company mine all the laughter). But those who choose not to attend will miss out on a profound, memorable, thought-provoking theatrical experience.
- ’Night, Mother runs through Feb. 7 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX Theatre, 3704 6th Avenue in Hillcrest
- Performances are 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday
- Tickets ($15-$33) are available at 619-600-5020 or online at www.iontheatre.com
- Running time: 90 min.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.
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