Theatre review - 'night, Mother

MARSHA Norman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about epilepsy and isolation in rural America doesn’t feel as radical as it surely was in 1983. Perhaps because we’ve just been through a pandemic and the reasons for alienation are already more varied and complex in today’s world.

’night, Mother is set in a lonely American backwater. Jessie (Rebecca Night) announces to her mother Thelma (Stockard Channing) that she is preparing to commit suicide. She roots around in the loft to find her father’s old gun and loads it with the bullets she’s bought from the local store.

Giving away the ending at the beginning of a drama is always a tricky proposition – how do you sustain tension and the audience’s interest?

Norman’s play is deliberately contemplative with minimal plot. Instead, Jessie completes household chores and leaving lists for Thelma. Over the course of 80 minutes, we learn that Jessie’s lifelong epilepsy stopped her from holding down a regular job and contributed to her failed marriage. She also feels guilty about her delinquent son.

After moving back with her mother, she’s become more of a companion and housekeeper than a daughter – even Thelma’s friends stay away. Jessie just doesn’t see the point of continuing. Thelma tries to persuade her to live, but she’s resolute.

’night, Mother was first staged at Hampstead in 1985 and is being revived as part of the theatre’s 60th anniversary “Originals” season. Roxana Silbert offers assured direction, Night gives a sympathetic performance and Channing’s star turn is immensely watchable.

One can see why Norman’s poignant, brooding play about suicide, loneliness and despair made a mark when it was first produced, but times have changed. I can think of several plays exploring these subjects right now that feel more topical and urgent.

Until December 4

Originally published by Camden New Journal