“I’m going to kill myself, Mama,” Jessie Cates announces early in “ ’Night, Mother,” and the next 90 minutes feature her mother, Thelma, trying to cajole, bully and guilt her out of that plan.
There’s no getting around it: It’s a bleak and upsetting play, especially because Jessie seems so rational as she makes her case. But in Dark & Stormy’s production of Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize winner, and particularly in the performances of Sara Marsh as Jessie and Sally Wingert as her mother, there is beauty, too:
The beauty of people who have been cruel to each other making an effort at kindness. The beauty of circumstances that force people to speak the truth. The beauty of Norman’s writing, which ranges from matter-of-fact observation (“Smoking’s the only thing I know that’s always just what you want it to be”) to a simple, gorgeous metaphor of despair being like riding on a bumpy bus.
First, a quibble: In addition to the spare excellence of her performance, Marsh designed the set, which doesn’t quite work. Some, but not all, of the set pieces (a rocking chair, a stove, a sink) hang from strings, poised a few inches off the ground.
This may be a nod to Jessie’s description of her epileptic seizures as being like “a puppet, and somebody cuts the strings all at once” and it may be meant to take “ ’Night, Mother” out of the realm of kitchen-sink realism and position it closer to Edward Albee-ish surrealism, which is an intriguing idea that doesn’t pay off.
In every other regard, this “ ’Night, Mother” is in sure hands. Director Hayley Finn and the actors have pitched the performance perfectly for Dark & Stormy’s intimate space, where we can see Wingert’s face express every one of the five stages of grief and a few new ones.
When Jessie announces her intentions to her mother, Wingert registers surprise and disbelief. But, as resignation sets in for Thelma, it seemed to me that Wingert was conveying the even more devastating idea that Thelma is not surprised that her daughter plans to end it all, and that if Thelma didn’t self-medicate herself with an endless stream of sourballs and taffy and Red Hots, she might not be far behind.
In fact, maybe it’s just because the actors are so strikingly in tune with each other — or maybe the surreality of Marsh’s set is working better than I just suggested — but for me, this production of “ ’Night, Mother” raises the possibility that, as in Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” the characters on stage are in some way meant to represent the same person at different stages of life.
Your mileage may vary on that notion, and I don’t mean to impose it on the production. It is so minutely detailed in the emotional shifts of its characters, and so up-close and personal, that each audience member is asked to bring their own unique experiences of grief and loneliness to bear on it — and part of the enduring strength of the play is that there is so much room in it for all of us.