Watching a character on stage collect old towels and clean the barrel of a gun in preparation for her suicide at the beginning of ‘night, Mother, I am struck by how realist dramaturgy can implant plot into setting. For before me is a slow but steady progression towards a reckoning whose means are embedded in the material components of the stage, and whose grim details are revealed early on.
Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer-Prize winning 1982 play night, Mother, which received its first production outside the US at the Hampstead in 1985, is the kind of play that lays its cards on the table from the get-go. This morbid, slow-burn two-hander opens with Jessie, an epileptic woman in her late thirties, declaring to her mother, with whom she’s lived for a long time, that she’ll kill herself by the end of the day. The remainder of Norman’s play is a protracted and elaborate ritual of readying for that anticipated moment, during which Jessie attempts to prepare her ‘mama’ for a life without her: how to operate the dryer, when to collect the milk, what to do (and not to do) when she hears the gunshot in less than an hour.
Roxana Silbert’s production embraces the play’s self-consciously thick realism, especially its obsession with its object world. Jessie and her mother’s dialogue, unfolding over the course of a single evening, is permeated by a series of domestic routines: cleaning the fridge, putting on the cover of the sofa, preparing hot cocoa, reorganizing the jars on the shelves, and so on. Rebecca Night, as Jessie, and Stockard Channing, as her mother Thelma, spend most of the play’s 80-minute run hopping around Ti Green’s spacious, parqueted set, handling one object after another. It’s no wonder why they can’t keep their hands off things: both these minutiae of domestic life and their chatter””about friends and acquaintances, about Jessie’s medical history and deceased father””are a way of staving off, even if only temporarily, and for different reasons, the real deal of Jessie’s suicidal ideation.
Night and Channing both succeed in conveying with their physicality””stiff, controlled, but also tense””this delicate dance of circumvention and confrontation. Their performances are, for the most part, aptly realized: Night brings to Jessie a quality of calm and cool that signals both a determination to end it all and a corresponding obliviousness. Channing’s Thelma tries hard to preserve her composure in the face of an impending disaster, but not without revealing the toll it takes on her to keep things bottled up””that is, until she can no longer do so.
Despite these grounded renderings of the characters, Silbert’s staging fails to counter””or at least rewire””the play’s built-in tedium, creating a much too static experience for the audience. The monochromatic, viscous dialogue often remains suspended in the air, rather than being chewed into. Green’s set design, loyal to the play’s demand for interior verisimilitude, abstracts the roof of the house with extensions resembling barbed wires, and introduces awkward, sharp angles all around. When combined with Rick Fisher’s muted lighting, this scenography does more to alienate than trap one’s attention, increasingly (and unduly) diluting the claustrophobic effect of the drama. The production is also ill-served by its conclusion, as misfires in both design and acting muffle the play’s ending””an unignorable, even unforgivable, let-down, given how much had hinged on our anticipation of this moment.
Ultimately, this production of ‘night, Mother raises more questions about its own decisions than the play itself. Based on what I saw on stage, I still find it difficult to identify a robust rationale for why this play was chosen to be revived in London in 2021. There seems to be no substantial attempt here to interrogate, re-envision, or cast a new light on this grim suicide drama””an absence even more mystifying in our contemporary context of mental health awareness. It’s telling that Silbert’s programme note is focused chiefly on the play’s ‘significance in theatre history’.
There is no denying that this is a decent staging of ‘night, Mother. But it’s also a staging that plays by the rules of a foregone period, that proves unable to render itself compelling for our own time. After the gunshot, I am left wondering: is this the best way, really, to revive a play with historical significance and contemporary relevance?
‘night, Mother is on at the Hampstead Theatre till 4th December. More info here.