Night of the Living Dead

Hardened by years of debilitating despair, a young woman shuffles into a Midwestern living room, saunters over to the dining-room table and matter-of-factly declares, "I'm going to kill myself, Mama--in a couple of hours." Ninety intermissionless minutes later, the character of Jessie Cates regrettably fulfills that awful promise. Apart from our basic humanitarian concern for yet another victim of the vortex of depression, however, we're left wondering at the end of Marsha Norman's play 'night Mother just why Jessie's uncompromising journey toward self-slaughter hasn't been as heartrending as expected.

To be sure, we certainly empathize with the shared plight of Jessie (kryssi wyckoff martin) and her mother, Thelma (Kathryn Gray), whose symbiotic relationship proves to be more crippling than it is nurturing. And Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which is being staged at the Shop by genoa's mother presents, is a well-wrought two-character cliffhanger infused with enough doubt to keep us guessing until the end. But despite director Chris P. Washam's straightforward approach and the actors' obvious devotion to the material, the production falls short due to a fundamental failure to effectively mitigate its essential problem: Like it or not, there is nothing terribly dramatic about a character who, from the moment the play begins, is nearly absolute in her resolve to die and utterly unmoved by most of her loved one's attempts to save her.

Yes, the playwright makes it abundantly clear that Jessie is determined to end her own life; the unhappy young woman has even made a lengthy, specific "to do" list in order to tidy up her affairs before she dies. We also learn that Jessie is taking some sort of medication to treat her epilepsy, a fact that might partially justify martin's detached portrayal. And it's also clear that Jessie has every intention of remaining aloof when her manipulative mother begins her predictable assault on Jessie's feelings.

But in order for the play to sustain our interest, we need to witness the smoldering, plot-sustaining conflict that fuels the dysfunctional relationship between smothering mother and guilt-ridden daughter. Except for the production's final, highly charged fifteen minutes, though, we're left wondering just why Jessie has chosen to spend her life's last hours sitting dutifully at the epicenter of her dashed hopes: her mother's living room. Is Jessie exacting a silent, cruel and final punishment by refusing to show the slightest bit of emotion when Thelma berates, cajoles and ultimately excoriates her? Or is Jessie's dispassionate vigil an agonizing, wholly unarticulated and excruciating cry for help?

Unfortunately, that crucial question remains unanswered for the greater part of Washam's mildly interesting production. Rather than convey the sense that her character is quietly suffering at the center of her own private hurricane of gloom, martin instead chooses to underplay Jessie's turmoil to the point that it's practically invisible. And while hiding her character's reactions from Thelma might be a practiced habit, concealing her responses from the audience is ill-advised. For instance, Jessie says she's thought about killing herself for the last ten years, but martin delivers the line as if Jessie has contemplated suicide for only the last ten minutes. What's more, when Jessie asks pointed questions about her father and then discusses her own failed marriage, martin sounds as though she's engaging in idle chitchat with Thelma and not as if she's dredging up ancient, painful issues for the final time. As a result, martin's portrayal doesn't leave much residual rancor for Gray to counterbalance and overcome. There's no clinging to life on Jessie's part--even if it's a negative, self-defeating, self-pitying stranglehold--that will permit the play's conflict to reach its inevitable, tragic boiling point.

Obviously, 'night Mother has been lovingly selected and produced, and the performers' valiant efforts represent something of a service to the community, given the long-overdue attention to mental illness brought about in part by the successful 1983 Broadway production of Norman's play (and the subsequent film starring Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft). It's also a call for support that needs to be properly addressed the instant it's voiced.

--Lillie

'night Mother, presented by genoa's mother presents through November 21 at the Shop, 416 East 20th Avenue, 303-831-6095.

 
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