This review of Marsha Norman's 'Night Mother' at Studio Theatre Long Island was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written by Marsha Norman
Directed by David Dubin
Studio Theatre Long Island
141 South Wellwood Avenue
Lindenhurst, New York 11757
'Night Mother' was a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that found moderate success on Broadway receiving four Tony Award nominations and running for nearly a year. Studio Theatre Long Island, known for edgy and witty entertainment about hot topics along with good family fun (Jungle Book coming soon), put on an emotionally gripping rendition of this tense drama. Studio Theatre is a charming venue in Lindenhurst, Long Island that serves coffee, sweets, and fruit on Sundays for patrons and has delightfully intimate seating with great views of the stage. The actresses, Sheila Sheffield as Thelma and Maryellen Molfetta as Jessie, did a great job of speaking fluidly and clearly which made both the circumstances of the play and the main themes easy to follow.
The play revolves around the suicide of the daughter, Jessie. At the outset of the play, she searches for her dad's old gun and when her mother questions her, Jessie subtly states that "the gun is meant for me." She then clarifies for her concerned mother, Thelma, and the audience that she intends this to be their last night together. I came to the play with only the knowledge that 'Night Mother' had won a Pulitzer, but my personal experience with many of the darker themes addressed during the play kept me intensely interested in how events would unfold.
The strengths of this play appear in both the script and the presentation of the actresses. The two main players handled themselves well and delivered impassioned appeals that helped bring life to a vivid script. The themes were incredibly reflective of the dark frame of mind that can lead people to thoughts of taking their own life. Thelma, the mother, attempts to keep her daughter alive through a desperate reconciliation. Within this comes the slow reveal that some secrets and selfishness with her daughter's time have poisoned their relationship. And yet, Jessie later flatly states her mother should "be more selfish."
Despite a few clean jokes and an acute understanding of the mindset in which victims of depression can find themselves in, there were a few audience members that nodded off early and failed to return to the matter at hand. The play doesn't deliver any truly great overtures of love or warmth and tender affection which serve to make the audience keenly aware of the mother and daughter's struggles. The actresses themselves were often focused on each other and were rarely called to engage the audience. Although they used the stage well, the plot ran in a linear fashion which I think would make it hard for audience members without personal experience from believing deeply in the morality or profundity of Jessie's intended suicide.
I would recommend this play to people who have prior personal experience with or are concerned about someone in their family going through a traumatic life struggle. Additionally, for those curious about depression and interested in the potential warning signs of a person drifting toward a potential depressive episode, this is a worthwhile study of human behavior. However, this is not an example of what you should do in the case that you or someone you know is in this position. The lack of arc to the plot makes it feel like a project written for the sole purpose of shedding light on a serious topic that may have, at one point, been taboo. Because of this, the play suffered from an artistic standpoint. Despite solid performances from the actresses and a script that showcases an understanding and awareness of mental health, 'Night Mother' failed to impress upon me more than a vague emotional response due mainly to the inevitability of Jessie's plans. I felt like I had understood rather than had been wrenched emotionally.
"Night Mother' plays at Studio Theatre Long Island through March 19, 2017. Tickets cost $25.00 and can be purchased at www.studiotheatreli.com. For more, call 631-226-8400.