‘Night Mother’ at Rockville Little Theatre

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Spring may be calling you outside to bike and run and savor the sunshine, but do yourself a favor…spend ninety minutes with the Rockville Little Theatre’s production of ‘Night Mother before you do. This thought-provoking and harrowing interpretation of Marsha Norman’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize winner is a not to be missed showcase of strong character acting by Nancy Blum and Annette Mooney Wasno.

Nancy Blum (Thelma) and  Annette Mooney Wasno (Jessie). Photo courtesy of Rockville Little Theatre.
Nancy Blum (Thelma) and Annette Mooney Wasno (Jessie). Photo courtesy of Ken Kemp.

‘Night Mother invites the audience into the spotless kitchen of Thelma and Jessie Cates on an ordinary Saturday night. As Jessie begins the weekly ritual of giving her mother a manicure, she calmly announces, almost as a throw-away line, “I’m going to kill myself, Mama.” And for the next 90 minutes, Mama – and the audience – must come to grips with the fact that Jessie is deadly serious in her intent. The tension of Marsha Norman’s brilliant script revolves around who has ownership of a life,  the tempestuous relationship between mother and daughter, the nature of depression, and about what happens when you choose to “say no to hope.’’

Rockville Little Theatre’s production hits all the right notes in keeping the audience engaged in this 90-minute life or death struggle. Director David Dieudonné draws carefully nuanced performances from his cast, illuminating their struggles with contemporary life and what gives it – or fails to give it – value. Dieudonné’s deft direction infuses mundane evening chores such as cleaning the refrigerator, folding the laundry, or giving a manicure with pathos, urgency, and occasionally even humor.

The spotless, brightly lit kitchen with its digital clock relentlessly counting down the minutes left until the final moment of choice is a perfect foil for the mundane tasks underpinning Jessie’s hopelessness and Thelma’s gradual awakening from a mother unable to see what is in front of her to someone willing to fight for her daughter (and maybe even for herself). Anita Britton’s set design is flawless and owes much to the work of Master Carpenter Steve Leshin and Lighting Designer Jim Robertson. As Properties Designer, Malca Giblin fills the kitchen with all of the things needed to illuminate an unlived life, from half-eaten bags of candy to grocery store ads neatly pinned to a bulletin board to mismatched pots and pans and half-used ketchup bottles.

But the night truly belongs to the actors. As Jessie, Annette Mooney Wasno faces a difficult challenge. She must convey Jessie’s absolute conviction that having the choice to end her life is the right one. She must shoulder the burden of trying to make utter hopelessness at once empathetic and yet undeniable. Jessie has undergone many challenges in her life, including a failed marriage, a hoodlum son, chronic unemployment, social awkwardness, the loss of her father, and suffering from epilepsy, which she now controls with medication.

Wasno effectively captures both the intense loneliness Jessie feels and the peace her decision brings her. She walks a delicate line, offering up some of the play’s bitter comic gems as well as some of the most heartbreaking moments. When Jessie reminisces about a picture of herself as a baby, Wasno is heartbreaking in her assurance that she has “lost” that self and that she will never show up again. She makes it harder and harder for her mother – and for the audience – to argue that anyone but she has the right to own when she gets to get off the bus of live and that only she has the right to “stop it, shut it down, turn it off.”

One of the most haunting and horrifying aspects of ‘Night Mother is not Jessie’s decision to “say no to hope” but Thelma’s slow realization – and the audience’s – that Jessie’s decision actually has a strange logic to it.

As Thelma, Nancy Blum takes the audience on an emotional journey of self-discovery. In 90 minutes, Thelma must rise above a lifetime of being ineffectual to try to save her troubled daughter and to learn how to begin again. Blum is absolutely pitch perfect as Thelma. Whether spinning out yarns about the neighbors as a defense mechanism or throwing a tantrum and lashing out in frustration and fear, Blum conveys Thelma’s inner emotional state with heartbreaking nuance and feeling. Her performance draws you in and your heart breaks with her as she wails, “But you are my child!” only to have Jessie respond coldly, “I’m what’s become of that child.”

With ‘Night Mother, the Rockville Little Theatre offers a heart-wrenching and thought-provoking gem that is sure to haunt you long after the lights have gone down on the Cates’ kitchen. Treat yourself to the intense and moving performances nurtured by Director David Dieudonné and delivered so flawlessly by Nancy Blum and Annette Mooney Wasno.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without an intermission.

Night Mother plays through March 23, 2014 at Rockville Little Theatre performing at the Randolph Road Theatre – 4010 Randolph Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 242-9735.

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Diane Jackson Schnoor
Diane Jackson Schnoor is delighted to be back in the DC metro area after nearly two decades away. She earned her BA at The American University, with a minor in theatre arts, and holds a master's and doctorate in elementary education from the University of Virginia. A lifelong devotee of the arts, Diane's reviews and arts feature stories have been published in The Millbrook Independent and DC Metro Theatre Arts. As an actress, Diane has performed with the Cape Fear Regional Theatre, the Fort Bragg Playhouse, TriArts Sharon Playhouse, and in musicals and dance shows in Millbrook, NY, Amenia, NY, and Lakeville, CT. Her day job career has run the gamut from adjunct college faculty to preschool director to public relations director and back again, but her primary occupation these days is as chauffeur to the two young actresses who inhabit her home in Winchester, VA.