Marsha Norman

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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Theatre Review – ‘night, Mother at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

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.