We all experience feelings of despair and hopelessness. That we don’t act on them and destroy ourselves is a good thing, and demonstrates a healthy mental state. Change a few circumstances and variables, however, and who knows how many people might give in to the urge to commit suicide? That is the subject matter of “‘night, Mother” on stage at the Beck Center.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning script by Marsha Norman made a huge splash on Broadway in 1982. The circumstance is that Jesse, afflicted with epilepsy, has developed a logical and well-thought-out plan to kill herself. She comes to her mother’s house first to find her father’s gun and then to calmly lay out the preparations she has made so that her widowed mother can continue with her life. Candy bowls are filled and calm instructions delivered on whom to call after the deed is done.
The Beck production has local performers Dorothy Silver as Thelma and Laura Perrotta as Jesse. Simply put, they are both professionals who give the rich script the treatment it needs to be effective for audiences today. Director Scott Plate has set the show in the present, but the only evidence that it is not 1982 is Perrotta’s line delivery. Her Jesse has a lot of expressionless delivery, as if Jesse is on “modern” medications that don’t allow one to feel freely or express emotions openly.
Both performers present women who are desperate in different ways and for different reasons. Jesse has a failed marriage and a son who makes one wrong decision after another. Thelma has come to rely on Jesse for her stimulation, and the thought of life without Jesse terrifies her.
The men in their lives are characters in the play as well, but they live through playwright Norman’s writing and the performers’ success at painting their pictures in images.
At the Studio Theater at the Beck Center, the demands of a realistic set are met. The ladies move from a claustrophobic kitchen to a living room with a tacky fabric couch cover. Done in real time, tension in the audience mounts as more than an hour ticks on the clocks and Jesse moves closer to completing her plans.
While I hesitate to use the word “entertaining” to describe “‘night, Mother,” I am struck by the large number of jokes that are in the script. The Beck audience at a matinee I attended picked up on most of them. These jokes form a kind of release, much like a pressure cooker that emits steam to prevent an explosion.
“Disturbing” is a better word to describe the tense and provocative script and performance. Every audience member should be able to relate to a time of feeling that both he and the world would be better off without him. “‘night, Mother” brings those feelings to life, and the gender of the character is almost immaterial.
“‘night, Mother” runs weekends through May 4 at the Studio Theater. The intimacy of the small space helps magnify the issues raised. And the phrase “too intense for small children” applies here as well.