Fox Theatricals, Harbor Entertainment, East of Doheny, The Araca Group, Terry Schnuck, Amanda Dubois, Ruth Hendel, Hal Goldberg, Wiesenfeld/Meyer
See A Conversation with ‘night, Mother Cast, Writer, Director
by Marsha Norman
Starring Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn
242 West 45th Street
Director: Michael Mayer
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Michael Krass
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Wig Designer: Paul Huntley
Production Stage Manager: James Harker
Production Manager: Kai Brothers
Marketing: The Araca Group
General Manager: Roy Gabay
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
November 17, 2004
I had skipped the original production of ‘night, Mother (the words that Jessie, the child, uttered each evening as she went to bed) in 1983, because I did not wish to endure the plot. The idea of a youngish woman announcing intentions to commit suicide in her mother’s house, and then, after a long argument, completing her threat (or desire), seemed too much for 90 minutes. However, on October 14, I joined a press lunch to interview Marsha Norman: Playwright, Michael Mayer: Director, and Edie Falco (Jessie Cates, the doomed daughter) and Brenda Blethyn (Thelma Cates, the equally doomed mother). The team of four drew me in, and the story line did not seem so daunting. I attended this production, and the theatrical action did not destroy the audience or me.
Luckily, there was no intermission, as the two actors busily prepare for the dreaded event, dreaded by Thelma and scheduled by her methodical daughter, Jessie. Jessie has epilepsy, presumably from falling from a horse, but other truths are bared in the agonizing and revelatory 90 minutes, as mother and daughter cook cocoa, sort colored candies in jars, wash the kitchen, sew, exchange gifts, cover the couch, organize pots and pans, and clean the refrigerator. Never did household chores seem so ominously highlighted, especially on a Broadway stage.
Jessie “prepares” her mother logistically, emotionally, socially, and psychologically for her years alone and for the inevitable gunshot that the audience awaits. The men in their lives - husbands, sons, father, brother, are described in dysfunctional and distant fashion. In fact, distance itself is almost its own character, as mother and daughter seem to be strangers under one roof. No chemistry, no inescapable connection. There is no piercing look into each other’s eyes. Rather, Jessie looks into space, head cocked to the side like the empty gun, early eve. Her gruesome, long brown wig (Edie Falco actually has extremely short, cropped hair) seems larger than herself, and her hunched shoulders reveal incredibly low self-esteem. Thelma’s wig is very mid-western (British Brenda Blethyn took diction lessons for the appropriate accent), and her house-frau clothes tell all, on this almost uneventful Saturday night.
As Thelma ineffectually tries to persuade her daughter to live, at least one more year, her offer of alternative activities seem suffocating and sufferable. Their unseen friends and relatives sound like pantomime clowns, and Thelma cruelly taunts her daughter, who literally stands at death’s door. The sets of a plain, provincial kitchen and living area are well suited to the plain, provincial circumstances that have led to this disaster. The lack of rich visual texture symbolizes the lack of rich emotional texture and the lack of direct action. Non-action is key to this play, as mother, Thelma, does not take untoward risk or cataclysmic action to save her daughter’s life. One wonders, after all, if Jessie is right – that her mother will be more at peace without her and her epileptic fits.
Ms. Norman has designed a psychological play that forces the audience to introspection. Everyone can relate to the breakdown of relationships and the notion of lost dreams. Hopelessness and despair may creep into the human condition. The ability to cope or the inability to cope are central to the behavioral outcome. Mr. Mayer has directed this play with such a loss of coping behavior, both for Thelma and tragically for Jessie. The irony is that Jessie teaches her mother how to handle the questions of her suicide at her own funeral. She also teaches her what to do, when she calls her son (Jessie’s brother, the owner of the foreboding rifle) and when she calls the police.
Thelma learned well, as she grasped her pot by the handle and slowly picked up the phone. Eeriness settled in at the Royale.