This review of Marsha Norman's 'Night Mother' at Studio Theatre Long Island was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens 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 written by Marsha Norman in 1981. It was developed by Circle Repertory Company and premiered in 1982 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It transferred to Broadway at the John Golden Theatre opening on March 31, 1983 and closing on February 26, 1984 after 380 performances. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983 and received four Tony Award nominations. The Broadway cast was transferred Off-Broadway for a continued run of 54 performances at the Westside Theatre in 1984. "Night Mother' was revived on Broadway at the Royale Theatre on November 14, 2014 closing on January 9, 2005 after 65 performances and 26 previews.
Jessie Cates has made what she believes is a rational decision to commit suicide and has told her mother Thelma of that decision, which she intends to carry out in a few hours using her deceased dad's revolver. She sees her life as a failure and doesn't believe there is any prospect of it getting better. She views this act as the ultimate means of asserting control over her life. She made a decision once before when she chose smoking over her husband Cecil, who left her, but she suspected he was getting tired of her anyway (even though she still loved him). As Jessie said, "I wasn't what he wanted to see, so it was better if he wasn't looking at me all the time." Jessie suffers from epilepsy and Thelma has tried to protect her all her life by keeping her close to home. She hasn't been able to keep a job and believes "the kind of job I could get would only make me feel worse." Her mother hired Cecil to build a porch she didn't need for the purpose of introducing her daughter to him. They had a child named Ricky, who has become a delinquent. He has stolen two rings from Jessie, uses drugs, and is a lost cause as far as she is concerned. She says, "I'd turn him in myself if I knew where he was." On the other hand, Jessie tells her mother, "If I thought I could get through to Ricky, I'd stay." She'd also stay if there was something she really liked, such as rice pudding or corn flakes for breakfast but taking care of her mother when she doesn't really need the help, isn't enough. Even the dog she loved got run over by the tractor and Agnes, her mother's best friend, won't visit the house anymore because her hands are so cold she believes "Jessie has shaken the hands of death like a corpse." Cecil even cheated on her by sleeping with Agnes's daughter. Jessie is so pissed off at life that she even gets annoyed when her brother Dawson calls her "Jess" instead of "Jessie." Instead of just leaving a suicide note, Jessie decided to tell her mother about her decision in advance so there would be no unanswered questions. However angry and upset Thelma gets, she still appreciates her daughter explained things to her because as she says, "I might not have thought of all the things you said." The decision to commit suicide is explained by comparing life to a bus ride. Jessie says, "Mama, I know you used to ride the bus. Riding the bus, and it's hot and bumpy and crowded and too noisy, and more than anything else in the world, you wanna get off. And the only reason in the world you don't get off is it's still fifty blocks from where you're going. Well, I can get off right now if I want to. Because even if I ride fifty more years and get off then, it's still the same place when I step down to it. Whenever I feel like it, I can get off. Whenever I've had enough, it's my stop."
Thelma doesn't accept Jessie's decision without a fight and for 95 minutes played out in real time, Thelma implores, pleads, shames, and argues in a valiant, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to get her daughter to change her mind. Thelma first blames herself questioning what she might have done differently. Perhaps she should have been more honest with her daughter about her epilepsy and not have sheltered her too much from the outside world. Maybe she shouldn't have set her daughter up with Cecil or allowed her daughter to move back in with her after he left. Telling Jessie "people don't kill themselves unless they're retarded or deranged," Thelma makes sure Jessie took her medicine. Jessie says she did and is feeling fine admitting she has thought about committing suicide on and off for 10 years. Thelma then tells Jessie that death may not be "restful" and that she has no idea "what being dead is like. It might be like an alarm clock going off." Focusing on her son, Thelma says, "What kind of example are you making for Ricky?" Jessie has an answer for everything. As to Ricky, Jessie says, "It's only a matter of time until Ricky kills." As for suicide being a sin, Jessie said she thinks Jesus' capture and crucifixion was a suicide. Frustrated she can't call the police or her son Dawson because Jessie has promised to simply accelerate the timetable of her suicide, Thelma argues "Good times don't come looking for you. If you've got the guts to kill yourself, you've got the guts to stay alive. You can be brave and try something else. Something might happen and it might be worth waiting for." Jessie's response, "I can't do anything about my life to make it better. It's going to stop and I'm going to stop it. Like turning off the radio." Thelma begs, "Don't leave me Jessie" and eventually threatens to physically block the door leading to her bedroom in a last-ditch attempt to stop her ("You're going to have to knock me down to get past me!").
Thelma tells Jessie, "I can't just sit here and say it's O.K. - go ahead and kill yourself" especially since Thelma herself loves her life. As she says, "I don't want things to change. I like me just the way things are. I like candy and tuna. I don't like things to think about. I like things to go on. I like it here and I am going to stay here until they drag me off kicking and screaming. " But eventually, Thelma realizes her arguments are having no impact on Jessie's resolute decision to end her life. Thelma says, " Who am I talking to? I can't stop you because you're already gone!" to which Jessie responds, "There wasn't anything you could say to change my mind. I didn't want you to save me. I just wanted you to know." Thelma says, "But you are my child!" to which Jessie responds, "I am what became of your child. I found an old baby picture of me...and it was somebody else - not me. It was somebody pink and fat. Who never heard of sick or lonely...That's who I started out. And this is who's left. So that's what this is about. Somebody I lost all right: my own self. Who I never was. Or who I tried to be and never got there. Somebody I waited for and never came - and never will. So see, it doesn't matter much what else goes on in the world or even this house even. I'm who I was waiting for. I didn't make it. Me! Who might have made a difference to me. I'm not gonna show up - so there's no reason to stay." While Thelma resolves to tell the family the reason for Jessie's decision to commit suicide was "something personal," her grief is inconsolable. As Jessie says 'night Mother', walks into her bedroom and locks the door, Thelma says, "Jessie don't do this! I was here all the time. How did I not know you were so alone!" The play ends with the sound of a gunshot and Thelma's grief-stricken call to her son. Her daughter-in-law Loretta answers the phone and Thelma says, "Let me talk to Dawson, honey."
The climax of this play leaves the audience emotionally drained as we identify with the mother's frustration, anger and inability to change her daughter's mind. The play raises the issue whether a rational human being who is not terminally ill can or should be permitted to make the decision to take their own life. Should Thelma have knocked her daughter unconscious to stop her and then have her committed to a mental institution until she gains perspective and regains the desire to live, or was she right to stop short of using such violence against a supposedly rational human being? 'Night Mother' will give you a lot to talk about over dinner and is not a play you will soon forget. Sheila Sheffield is brilliant in the role of Thelma Cates, and Maryellen Molfetta, is extremely believable as her depressed daughter Jessie Cates. Together they have good chemistry on stage. Both draw the attention of the audience and keep them fully engaged in the drama from the very beginning of the play to the end.
This production of 'Night Mother' is a must see for everyone interested in why a person might decide to take their own life and the pain that decision causes to those who love them. There are occasional humorous moments when for example, Jessie suggests they clean out the attic and donate some of the stored items. Thelma's response was, "I don't even want the things we have." When Thelma decides that after her daughter's suicide, she will stay in her own home instead of going back with Dawson and Loretta, Thelma's decision to stay turns on the fact that in her son's house, they only have Sanka. In the end, Jessie says no to everything, including hope, and especially the Red Chinese!
'Night Mother' plays at Studio Theatre Long Island through March 19, 2017. Tickets cost $25.00 and can be purchased online at www.StudioTheatreLI.com. For more information, call 631-226-8400.