IMAGE: (left to right) Jessie (Jennifer Berry George), Thelma (Melissa B. Robinson). Photo by Toly Yarup.
REVIEW • BY STEVE LAROCQUE
The question comes out of nowhere, amid chitchat about the beach towel and the cupcake that the coconut keeps falling off of: “Mama, where’s Daddy’s gun?”
The question sets in motion a mother’s terrific struggle for the life of her daughter in ‘Night, Mother, playing at the Highwood Theatre through October 8.
Jessie, who asks the question, has moved back in with her mother Thelma after Jessie’s marriage fell apart. She has mastered the routine of her mother’s home and existence to the point where she has, in effect, become Thelma’s caregiver.
Not that Thelma is incapacitated, really – just ineffectual, gossipy, and given to overindulging in candy of every possible description, which Jessie dutifully procures for her by arranging deliveries to the house, which seems to be a good way out of town.
(left to right) Thelma (Melissa B. Robinson), Jessie (Jennifer Berry George). Photo by Toly Yarup.
Pondering her daughter’s question, Thelma at first exhibits only mild curiosity; she is far more interested in making sure that Jessie is still available for their Saturday night ritual – her mother’s manicure. Jessie reassures her: “I got it on the schedule.”
But there’s another item on the schedule, too: Jessie announces, matter-of-factly, somewhere between the discussion about the milk can in the attic and the new Chinaberry nail polish, that she intends to commit suicide.
Thelma reacts initially with denial and clumsy humor; then, as she dimly comes to realize that Jessie is serious, she lurches from one attempt after another to talk her daughter out of the horrific act.
But Jessie is buying none of it. She has made up her mind; she has plenty of reasons: her failed marriage; her borderline-criminal son; her epileptic seizures; and the general conviction that things fall down all around her.
She equates her life to a long, bumpy ride in a bus that’s too hot, that she desperately wants to get off of. Tonight, she has decided, she will get off the bus.
That’s the main thread of the play, and all you really need to know about the plot.
Jessie (Jennifer Berry George). Photo by Toly Yarup.
There is also abundant bad-mouthing of nearly all the male figures in the two women’s lives – the uncommunicative father, the wayward husband, the intrusive brother, and the budding criminal son – which has prompted some to interpret of ‘Night, Mother as a feminist (or, at least, male-bashing) play.
But it isn’t that simple: even the no-account males have redeeming touches: Jessie’s father could make just about anything out of pipe cleaners, and often did, for his daughter; Jessie’s husband was “the best carpenter,” making a baby’s crib to outlast the ages; and Jessie’s son “isn’t through yet,” insists Thelma, and may just make something of himself.
The play presents considerable challenges in production and performance. Not only is there the inherent gloominess of the main topic, only occasionally relieved by humor, but the two actors face the sheer challenge of holding the stage, and the audience’s attention, for 95 minutes, with no intermission.
So, how do they do? Superbly.
Melissa B. Robinson invests Thelma with mature energy, chatty at first, then frantically inventive and fiercely protective as she realizes that her daughter’s horrific plan is no joke. She lurches from one stratagem after another with palpable, desperate urgency.
As Jessie, Jennifer Berry George counters with cool assurance that this is the best course of action; that her life is the only thing that really belongs to her, and she has decided to stop it. She punctuates her mother’s desperate interventions with a stream of efficient arrangements and reminders to ensure that Thelma will be able to cope with all the details of life that she has gradually ceded to her daughter since her return to the parental home.
She is so good at this, in fact, that, if Jessie were a much older person, you might accept her reasoning as a valid basis for the awful decision and admire the thoroughness of her arrangements to provide for those around her in the event of her passing.
Thelma (Melissa B. Robinson). Photo by Toly Yarup
But the tragedy of the story is that a young person, even one with so many troubles in her account, would decide to get off the bus, however hot or bumpy the ride. In fact, Thelma can’t figure out what would make Jessie want to take her life now: “There’s nothing real sad going on right now.”
I’m not supposed to tell you how it ends, but the play has been around for over thirty years, and was made into a film with Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft, so it’s pretty easy to find out for yourself.
Credit director Madison Middleton for moving the action efficiently and with visual variety around Orion Stekoll’s ingenious set, which makes the most of Highwood’s modest performance space. Kudos, too, for the steady pace and energy of the play, which, in less skilled hands, could have been a colossal downer. In Highwood’s production, ‘Night, Mother is the urgent struggle that it’s intended to be, with neither protagonist giving in until the inevitable happens.
Night, Mother by Marsha Norman. Director: Madison Middleton; Set Design: Orion Stekoll; Costume Design: Tip Letsche; Lighting Design: Kevin Kearney; Prop Design: Jason Reid; Production Manager: Toly Yarup
Through Sat, Oct 8. Fri-Sat: 8 pm; Sun: 2 pm. At the Highwood Theatre, 914 Silver Spring Ave., Suite 102, Silver Spring. Not recommended for students under 13. Tickets: $25; buy online at www.thehighwoodtheatre.org or call (301) 587-0697.