“The clock is ticking,” is not necessarily a phrase a feminist writer likes to hear, but when discussing the upcoming production of ‘night, Mother, an exception can be made. In this case, the aforementioned clocks are not those of a woman’s biology but of actual time, counting down to the death of one of the women onstage.
Written by Marsha Norman, ‘night, Mother takes place during one evening spent at the home of Thelma, an elderly woman and her daughter Jessie, who announces that she plans to kill herself that night. Throughout the evening, Thelma tries to change Jessie’s mind while struggling to understand why she would make such a decisions. Themla begs, pleads, and fights with her daughter, but as the clocks that will be featured throughout the set continue to tick, the time of Jessie’s death – and the door she will walk through to commit suicide – gets closer and closer.
‘night, Mother was viewed as a controversial play when it was first produced at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, starred Kathy Bates as Jessie and Anne Pitoniak as Mama. The subject of the play, as well as the small cast (Jessie and Thelma are the only characters), both of whom are women, was unusual at the time. The play, with the original cast, transferred to Broadway in 1984 and was nominated for four Tony Awards. The play was revived for a short run on Broadway in 2004, starring Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn. This production, by the White Horse Theater Company, and directed by White Horse’s Producing Artistic Director Cyndy A. Marion, stars Joy Franz as Thelma, with Laura Siner playing Jessie.
Performing in ‘night, Mother is an intense experience, to say the least, according to Franz and Siner, who said they devoted a great deal of time to developing the backstories to their characters, including their relationships with each other.
“I read the script 2, 3, 4 times and analyze it,” Franz said of preparing to play Thelma. “I need to know what my intentions are – to tell her there is still hope and things to live for, to get her to think more positively. I’m fighting for her.”
The power struggle between Jessie and Thelma is one of the central themes of ‘night, Mother, and Thelma’s determination, as well as Jessie’s obstinacy, are both put to the test.
“I pull out every tactic,” Franz said of her character. “I push, I beg, I guilt…It’s a real challenge. We are challenging each other.”
“And I stay strong through that,” Siner added.
While Franz’s character is struggling to change her daughter’s mind, her daughter is struggling to gain her mother’s acceptance of her decision. One of the striking aspects of Jessie’s character is how methodically she prepares for her death; she has organized everything down to the last detail including the following day’s milk order. Jessie has a list of items to complete on her notepad and one of them, she says, is to shoot herself with her father’s gun. But first she has to take care of her mother to ensure she will be ok.
“She has more compassion for others than she has for herself,” Siner said of Jessie. “That’s the sad part of the play – how far she’s gone down.” Siner said she sees women having more compassion for others than themselves onstage quite often, an occurrence which she credits to being common in everyday life.
Jessie’s decision is credited to numerous factors in her life, including a failed marriage, a son with a criminal record and suffering from epilepsy, a disease which results in seizures and prevents her from holding a job and her dependency on her mother, with whom she lives. But despite Jessie’s despair at her state of affairs, her decision to end her life is viewed by both Siner and Franz as an act of empowerment rather than tragedy.
“It’s definitely that I’ve taken charge of the moment more than I ever have,” Siner said. “This is all I have left. I’m not going to let anyone make decisions for me any more.”
“You could argue that she is taking care of herself and taking care of others,” added Marion.
The question of whether Jessie’s decision is one of strength or weakness has been debated, as has the question of if the reception of her decision is related to her gender.
“If it was a son, would it be perceived as a weak act?” Marion asked. “I think when a man kills himself, it is seen as a weak act, when for a woman, it’s an act of strength. I think if it were a gender-reversed play, with a father and son, people’s reactions to the play would be different….In 1984, to see a play on Broadway that is just women and women centered – I think it just shocked people. It’s hard to believe, but I think it was an issue then.”
While enough time has passed since night, Mother was first performed that the issue of gender may not be an issue to audience members, the subject of suicide is still an issue. Franz thinks the themes of the play are not universal and not gender-specific.
“There’s an epidemic of suicide today. It’s more prevalent in the news now,” Franz said. “That’s why this is important…“I think this is a very powerful play for both men and women to see. It’s not just mothers and daughters.”
‘night, Mother will run at the Hudson Guild Theatre (441 West 26th Street), from May 3-May 19 with performances Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. There is also a Saturday matinee at 2pm on 5/18. Tickets, priced at $18, can be purchased online at smarttix.com. For more information, visit WhiteHorseTheater.com.