It’s far more than a beautifully written mother-daughter conversation. Over the course of an evening at home, a young woman explains to her mother the list of things she will need to do every day to keep the house working efficiently and, more specifically, what she must do tonight after the young woman kills herself with her late father’s pistol. She calmly cleans the gun as she talks.
Director Diane Sintich embroiders a tense real-time drama about this mother-daughter relationship in Marsha Norman’s 1982 play, ‘night, Mother, for Invictus Theatre Company. Jessie (Courtney Gardner), divorced and depressed, calmly tells her Mama Thelma (Takeisha Yelton Hunter) about her plan to commit suicide tonight. Over the course of the evening, Jessie goes over all the requirements of running the house, cleans out the refrigerator, straightens up her bedroom, folds laundry and reassures her mother that she indeed loves her. But she can’t bear to live any longer. Jessie has suffered from epilepsy since childhood. (“They‘re seizures, Mama, not fits!”) She also has untreated depression.
Hunter’s expressive face displays her range of emotions—first disbelieving, then playful and persuasive as she tries to talk Jessie out of her decision, then sad and resentful because she will be left alone. She makes cocoa to share with her daughter as they carry on this harrowing dialogue. “Let’s just have a good time today,” Jessie pleads. “How long you been thinking of this?” Thelma asks her daughter. “A long time. For years,” Jessie says. “I’m tired. I hurt. I’m sad. I feel used.”
And later, Mama says, “How can I live here without you? I need you … how can I wake up every morning knowing you had to kill yourself to make it stop hurting?”
“You are my child,” Mama pleads. “I am what became of your child,” Jessie says.
After explaining funeral arrangements, Jessie advises her mother what to say when people ask why she did it. “Say you don’t know. We loved each other…. Our last night was just like any other.” She has had her mother’s best dress cleaned for the occasion.
The two woman are each in two different rooms in this live virtual production. Jessie is in her bedroom and the kitchen, Mama in her sitting room and what appears to be the same kitchen. Joseph Beal’s set design and props make the two kitchen sets almost match. Chad Lussier is technical director and Charles Askenaizer is production designer. Satoe Schechner is costume designer.
Careful camera work and editing provide closeups and scene changes that are more dynamic than a typical Zoom production. I don’t mean to downplay virtual Zoom theater; I have seen some exciting virtual theater during this pandemic. Most notable were the last three Apple Family plays by Richard Nelson offered by New York’s Public Theater; in each, four or five family members carry on thrilling and sometimes heart-wrenching conversations in their respective Zoom boxes.)
As I watched this emotional story play out with its inevitable ending, I wondered If it would be better for a mother to go through this kind of painful conversation with a child—or be wakened at midnight to be told by a police officer that her child had committed suicide by gunshot. Would surprise be worse—or better?
I don’t often offer “trigger warnings.” But I think this is a play to be avoided for any parent who has lost a child. Invictus closes the play with this language on screen: “You are loved. No one is alone.” They provide contact with a suicide and counseling hotline.
‘night, Mother, which opened on Broadway in December 1982, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Norman adopted her stage script for film and Tom Moore, who directed the Broadway production, directed the 1986 film version .
Playwright Norman’s creative credits for Broadway musicals include book and lyrics for The Secret Garden (for which she won a Tony) and The Red Shoes, the libretto for The Color Purple and the book for The Bridges of Madison County. She is cochair of the playwriting department at the Juilliard School.
‘night, Mother will be performed live and streamed online four times a week for the next two weeks. The production will play online through Sunday, November 8. Tickets are $20 for all performances and 10 percent of ticket proceeds will be donated to Sista Afya Community Care, a nonprofit organization that provides mental health and wellness services for Black women in Chicago. Buy tickets here.