Intense. Marsh Norman’s drama allowed an audience to share the final hour-and-a-half of a young woman’s life with her. Jesse (played by Stevie Neale) accepted her impending passing with quiet reservation. ‘night, Mother began with her informing her Mama (played by Phyllis Josephson) of how quickly her end approached; opting to share her last moments with her. This set-up alone would have made for a powerful dramatic performance. The cause of Jesse’s death made it intense: she’d planned on committing suicide before the evening’s end.
In my experience with theatre, I’ve found that the fewer the characters in a given performance, the more challenging the roles. With only Jesse and Mama in this case, ‘night, Mother proved it. Fortunately for theatre fans, director Tim Sagges, selected two extraordinary talents for this Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage production. I attended the opening night performance this October 7th.
Stevie Neale deserves immense credit for playing the role of Jesse. The character had failed as a wife, raised a criminal son and couldn’t keep a job due to poor health. She explained various household miscellanies to her mother such as the arrangement of silverware, the location of spare fuses and how to order groceries from the local store while discussing terminating her life. That’s quite a challenge.
Ms. Neale selected an exceptional voice for Jesse. She used a calm, almost whisper-like tone containing a trace of anger. It really conveyed Jesse’s emotional state, or lack thereof. She described suicide with the same passion as someone reciting passages from the National Electrical Code book. This inflection demonstrated how Jesse viewed life as a bus trip that she “wanted to get off.”
But Jesse’s character possessed more dimensions than the surface showed. When Mama brought up Jesse’s ex-husband, Ms. Neale stared into the distance. Her facial expressions displayed a pining for the past coupled with immense sadness for the present. It illustrated why taking care of Mama just “wasn’t enough” to inspire an interest in living.
Upon getting to know Mama through Phyllis Josephson’s exceptional interpretation, I could understand why. I credit the playwright for pairing a suicidal character with the worst possible person to talk her out of it. It made for great conflict. When Jesse asked Mama if she’d loved Daddy, a pause and a matter-of-fact “no” followed. While Jesse believed a fall from a horse in adulthood caused the epilepsy which thus fractured her marriage, Mama rebutted that she’d had “fainting spells” since childhood. (She’d never thought to take Jesse to a doctor because of them.) Then she expressed jealousy towards Jesse’s relationship with her father, a man Mama admitted she didn’t love. I wrote that this show was intense, right?
I’ve watched Ms. Josephson play comedy as Grandma in the Addams Family Musical. I also attended a performance of the dramedy Kimberly Akimbo, in which she played the title character. I really enjoyed watching her take on a role this much more complex. Mama ran the entire range of grieving emotions from denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance in less than 90 minutes. At the same time she struggled to give her troubled daughter reasons to live. In the course of doing so, she reflected on her own life. That’s a very demanding role and Ms. Josephson portrayed it brilliantly.
In terms of the play itself, I thought the playwright could have written it better. While an intense drama I thought it lacked emotive depth. Jesse had already resigned herself to her, if self-inflicted, fate. Mama experienced myriad emotional states during the show, but they passed quickly. By the time I understood her feelings she’d already moved on to another. No doubt, the show’s time frame necessitated this. It encompassed a consecutive 90 minutes of these two characters’ lives. It also lacked an intermission which required the drama to progress quickly. With that acknowledgement, both performers and the director did an exceptional job with the material.
At the show’s conclusion the audience sat silently for several moments. No one seemed exactly sure how to respond until the woman next to me cried. Due to the unsettling subject matter ‘night, Mother may not be for everyone. The phenomenal performances by Ms. Neale and Ms. Josephson certainly made it worth seeing, though. I can summarize the quality of their performances in one word: intense.