One of the most profoundly memorable evenings at the theater I ever encountered was the original New York production of Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “ 'night Mother.”
When the houselights came up at the end of play, it took me a few moments to catch my breath and realize it was over. It took minutes more for me to notice I was the only one left in a theater that had been full. The quiet was deafening. When I finally pulled myself up and out of the theater into the nighttime bustle of West 45th Street, the feel of the city was different.
Norman’s play had pushed my awareness wide open. The previous 90 minutes had shaken me to my very core. And most ironically, considering the play’s subject matter, it left me feeling alive.
‘ ’night Mother’
WHERE: Albany Civic Theater, 235 Second Ave., Albany
WHEN: Through Nov. 24
HOW MUCH: $15
MORE INFO: 518-462-1297, www.albanycivic.org
I have purposely stayed away from this play since — some 30 years — because I didn’t want to lose or cloud that pure feeling of remarkable craft.
I may have made a mistake.
Time has not faded Norman’s play. It still has all its punch and pathos, and it all came rushing back during the fine production currently on the board at the Albany Civic Theater. It is not to be missed.
It’s a quiet summer night, and Jessie Cates is looking over her almost finished to-do list. But this is no ordinary list. Epileptic, agoraphobic, a failure as a wife and parent, Jessie now lives with her aging widowed mother, Thelma, in the family's rural home. Over the past few months, Jessie has been examining her life and has decided it is not worth living. She has set her affairs in order.
As she readies Thelma for her Saturday night manicure, she casually informs her she has decided to commit suicide and won't be alive in the morning. In the next 90 minutes, as the reality of Jessie’s plan marches toward completion, Thelma runs the race of her life to stop her.
Written more as an emotional sonata than a sob-fest, Norman’s play is a tightly scripted, passionate dance between mother and daughter. Most of the evening’s crucial moments are well placed by director Nate Beynon, allowing his actors the naturalistic rise and fall of the story’s tricky emotional journey. Both Amanda Brinke as Jessie and Joan Justice as Thelma bring much talent to the table.
Justice, however, excels with a finely calibrated performance, metered and spaced perfectly. Effectively managing to keep Thelma’s realizations happening in the “now,” while at the same time trying to clumsily piece together a strategy to stop Jessie’s plan is difficult to watch, but Justice completely succeeds.
Brinke has moments that are just as authentic, and the relationship between mother and daughter flows naturally and unforced. Jessie’s sensitive wounded soul is palpable, and Brinke is able to mine Jessie’s pain and disappointment with success.
Beynon has done a fine job balancing pathos with the humor that is welcomingly present; however, the muting of Jessie’s anger and the hints of danger the author has offered up for her to volley does diminish some of the evening’s emotional heft.
The one truly tragic flaw in this production is the stage lighting. The story plays out in real time just as evening falls, so it is understandable and appropriate that shadows should be present and areas of the room would be dim. The choice to have the first third of the play woefully underlit made it difficult at times to discern which character was speaking. Amplifying this design misstep was the choice to keep the houselights on, removing the audience from the story and keeping them firmly placed “in a theater.” Thankfully, evening descended and the “sun” eventually set on the audience — when the actors turned the lamps on, finally illuminating Richard Montena’s nicely appropriated setting.