‘’Night, Mother’ explores depths of depression, family secrets
The Highwood Theatre’s Night, Mother, expertly directed by Madison Middleton and wonderfully acted by Melissa B. Robinson and Jennifer Berry George, is a thoughtful staging of a Pulitzer Prize-winning work by playwright Marsha Norman. The play asks many questions: How does one deal with a debilitating illness? How should one cope with the vicissitudes of life? And like Hamlet, should one be or not be, when the going gets rough?
The show is a 90-minute study (brought home by the working clock on the kitchen wall) of a mother-daughter relationship. The daughter is the depressed and divorced Jessie Cates (Jennifer Berry George) and her mother is Thelma Cates (Melissa B. Robinson), with whom Jessie lives. The play starts off innocently, with thirty-year-old Jessie talking about nothing in particular—except for manicures—with her mother. But as the evening progresses, (brought home by that ever-present clock) it’s clear that Jessie is a woman living in a cauldron of inner-turmoil.
The air of calm in their old country house is broken when Jessie starts asking where she can find her late father’s old pistol (she wants it for personal protection), portending a heart-wrenching struggle for Jessie’s soul throughout the play. The pistol gives the show a sinister tone. As playwright Anton Chekov famously wrote: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Much of Jessie’s turmoil is brought on by her epilepsy, or “fits” as her mother calls them. Despite not having had a “fit” for a whole year, Jessie wants to end it all. “I’m tired…I feel sad,” complains Jessie. Jessie not only has trouble staying married (Her husband Cecil left her.), but staying employed at a series of penny-ante jobs. “I can’t do anything…I could have a seizure any moment.” As the show moves on, many secrets come to light and Jessie’s inner-turmoil boils over, figuratively burning her mother.
A contentious point in their relationship is Thelma’s lack of love for Jessie’s father, who also apparently suffered from “fits” and was very close with Jessie. Thelma complains that Jessie’s father, who met her when she was 15, “married a plain country girl and held it against me…He died and you’re stuck with me.” As for Jessie ending it all, one can only think, “will she or won’t she?” The suspense was pulse-raising.
George excellently brought Jessie’s pain to life. Robinson (who wonderfully directed The Long Way Around at Highwood last fall) expertly lived the pain of a loving mother on stage. Middleton (a high school junior at D.C.’s Fusion Academy, in her debut in Highwood’s Directing Fellowship Program) wonderfully brought it all together.
The show’s kitchenette and den\living room, created by Set Designer Orion Stekoll, was so cozy, I wanted to sit down and have a cup of coffee. Costume Designer Tip Letsche did a good job with Robinson’s frumpy sweat shirt and pajama bottoms (which matched the tone of the character), and Prop Designer Jason Reid created an air of verisimilitude with props that included the aforementioned clock, and pots and pans that got thrown about by Robinson. ‘Night, Mother will feature a post-performance talk-back, after the Friday, September 30th show.
Ultimately ‘Night, Mother is a show about the consequences of not loving one’s self. The two actors manage to keep the audience engrossed, despite the somber tone of the play. It’s a winner for Highwood and Middleton.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.