Most write off Marsha Norman’s ‘night Mother, a sobering drama that follows a middle-aged divorcée in the hours before her suicide, as downright dour. But that’s too easy.
Director Jonathan Forester’s iteration, opening this month at Hendersonville Community Theatre, instead realizes the script’s softer, more relatable potential.
“They’re functionally dysfunctional like any other family,” says Forester. “And it works.”
At least it seems to. When the play begins, we meet Jessie Cates, played by Shari Azar, and Thelma “Mama” Cates, here Annette Hobbs. The women live in a neat country house where everything — from garbage-bag ties to candy — has its place. But housekeeping and thoughtless routine cannot right deeply significant wrongs, one of which is Mama’s tendency to tell lies.
“She fabricates stories to make life more sensational,” says Azar. “Maybe she also does it to divert the intimacy of conversation or sidetrack connection.”
Whatever the reason, it ruins mother-daughter trust. Plus, Mama runs on a narcissistic thread. She’s self-referring and needy, and can’t manage anything by herself. She doesn’t even know how to drive.
“She married too young by our standards and had kids pretty early on, too. She’s come to rely on her daughter,” explains Hobbs. Unemployed, loveless, and suffering from epilepsy, Jessie must cater to her mother’s every whim. But the dynamics change when Jessie calmly announces that she’s going to take her life.
“The cards are now in her hands,” says Azar. “She’s finally making a choice in her life. There’s a sense of autonomy and power.”
Feeling quite the opposite, Thelma spends the next 85 minutes (a clock ticks down in real time) trying to delay the inevitable. At one point, she runs through the kitchen and jumbles utensils, knowing her daughter won’t leave before straightening the spoons and forks. It’s a moment of pure mayhem, and onlookers aren’t sure whether they should laugh or sob into a neighbor’s shoulder.
Of course, emotions run wild when Jessie locks herself away with her late father’s gun.
Forester wants his production to start a conversation about mental illness. He notes that when Norman first released this pressure cooker of a play in ’82, five years before Prozac hit the market, depression was still quite taboo. And though obvious progress has been made to promote awareness, stigma still prevails. Even in art, it continues to be a dicey topic — proven recently by the controversial young-adult-book-turned-Netflix-movie 13 Reasons Why, about teen suicide.
“We sweep these things under the rug,” says Forester. “We don’t see that depression comes in all forms.”
Or that suicide isn’t always understood.
“There are complicated reasons for why someone would take their own life,” says Azar. We can’t always know why. “Sometimes,” she adds, “it’s a mystery.”
’Night Mother opens on the Second Stage at Hendersonville Community Theatre (229 South Washington St.) on Friday, June 2, and runs through Sunday, June 11. Performances are at 7:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2pm on Sundays. $16/general. For tickets and information, visit hendersonvilletheatre.org or call the box office at 828-692-1082.