Drama Review – ‘night, Mother by Marsha Norman

Marsha Norman took an original approach to an unsettling topic. Using only two characters she explored the final 90 minutes of a young woman’s life. Jessie chose to share the time leading up to her demise alone with her mother. While that premise alone made for a dark, uncomfortable story, the impending cause of her passing made it deeply distressing. Jessie nonchalantly informed Mama that she’d commit suicide before the evening’s close.

The playwright even crafted a setting to fit this morbid foundation. Ms. Norman provided the following detailed description of the door leading to Jessie’s bedroom.

One of the bedrooms opens directly into the hall and its entry should be visible to everyone in the audience. It should be, in fact, the focal point of the entire set and the lighting should make it disappear completely at times and draw the entire set into it at others. It is a point of both threat and promise. It is an ordinary door that opens onto absolute nothingness. The door is the point of all the action and the utmost care should be given to its design and construction. (Page 6)

I’ve read my share of set instructions, but I’ve never seen one so detailed for a door. I liked that in my version of the play (published by Dramatists Play Service, Inc.) the book included a photograph of the set designed by Heidi Landesman from the New York production. It helped me to understand the author’s vision.

I liked the way the playwright infused a somber tone to the backstory. Several times in the text Jessie referenced realizing she needed to end her life “since Christmas.” Her decision to die amidst a time known for joy and merriment did something I wouldn’t have thought possible. It added to the impact of Jessie’s choice.

Several months ago I watched a performance of ‘night, Mother at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage. I thought the performers magnificent in their roles. I did feel that the script could have been written better. For that reason I wanted to read the actual text version of the play to determine the accuracy of my initial assessment. My reading of it reinforced my original thoughts.

While an intense subject matter, I didn’t feel that the play’s structure allowed for the emotional impact the topic deserved. Shortly after the story began, Jessie retrieved her deceased father’s gun from the attic. When Mama asked why, Jessie explained her intentions. A dialog between the two characters ensued. Jesse explained,

I’m just not having a very good time and I don’t have any reason to think it will get anything but worse. I’m tired. I’m hurt. I’m sad. I feel used. (Page 22)

As the drama progressed, Jessie explained the events that led to her decision. She talked about her failed marriage, the hooligan her son developed into and the epilepsy that made it difficult for her to remain employed. She interspersed these recollections with descriptions of where Mama could find various household goods and how to place orders with the grocery store.

For me, the concept would’ve worked better if, as a reader or an audience member, I got to watch Jessie’s emotional deterioration as these events occurred. Mama observed during the play, “I can’t stop you because you’re already gone.” (Page 51) That’s the impression Jessie gave me at the beginning of the story. (It’s also what performer Stevie Neale made me think when I watched the play presented.) If I already know exactly how the story will end, there are only two characters and one set, why continue reading?

In my review of the community theatre production I wrote that, “Mama ran the entire range of grieving emotions from denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance in less than 90 minutes.” (Once again: I give kudos to Phyllis Josephson for pulling this off.) I had the same sense from reading the text. I agree that a mother would experience all these feelings over her daughter’s impending passing. I just thought they occurred too quickly in this play: a full production of it only takes 90 minutes.

All writers know that the first rule of fiction is that the protagonist must change. I didn’t get a sense of either character changing in this drama. Mama realized she made mistakes as a parent. This doesn’t qualify as the character changing. While she would’ve done some things differently with the benefit of hindsight, her errors in raising Jessie weren’t committed out of malice.

The characters of Mama and Jessie possessed one key difference. Mama would fabricate stories whereas Jessie always remained rooted in reality. The scene in which Mama told Jessie how her friend Agnes burned down several houses concretized this disparity; it also went on a little too long for the point the playwright wanted to make. At the end of the story neither character deviated from their original personalities. Once again, I didn’t get a sense of either character changing.

‘night, Mother received 1983 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. I can understand why based on the unique topic. While Ms. Norman clearly put a lot of thought into the story, set and the characters, I didn’t experience the emotional impact I expected from the play. For readers interested in a highly emotive Pulitzer Prize winning drama about people coping with death, I’d recommend David Lindsey-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole over this one.

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