It has been 31 years since this reviewer previously saw a live production of Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama ‘NIGHT, MOTHER, yet it remains an indelible theatre experience. The fine production mounted by Your Theatre at The Highwood Theatre conjures up the power and pathos of this excellent play.
‘NIGHT, MOTHER is a two-hander with “Mama” Thelma, a self-described “plain county woman” and her daughter Jessie. Jessie has reached a major life decision which she knows will upset her mother. Her announcement of the decision provokes an evening of honesty, recriminations, and regret as the two women explore their feelings and their different outlooks on their disappointing lives.
Thelma (Melissa B. Robinson) is a chatty woman who accepts life as it is. She manages to find joy in small pleasures despite being a widow who lives in a modest home (that she accurately describes as having nothing worth stealing). She is 60ish and enjoys being taken care of by Jessie.
Jessie (Jennifer Berry George) is a dutiful daughter, often shy and quiet but possessing a quirky sense of humor. She is virtually unemployable because of her epilepsy and lives a lonely life. She misses both her late father and her husband Cecil who left her, and her only child Ricky is off to parts unknown heading to a life of crime. Jessie moved into her mother’s home after Cecil left her.
It is clear that these two women spend lives full of simple routine with the mundane crowding out the meaningful. On this night alone do they address topics such as Thelma’s real feelings about Jessie’s quiet farmer father or the extent of Jessie’s medical issues.
It is hard to explain the greatness of this work without disclosing details best enjoyed in the intimate Highwood Theatre. The story steadily builds in emotion and suspense towards an unforgettable conclusion.
Melissa B. Robinson gives an outstanding performance as Thelma. She is a convincing farm widow, simple and usually accepting of life. Yet her dependence upon Jessie and her fear of losing her are clear and her anguish grows as she faces Jessie’s determined decision.
It takes a while for Jennifer Berry George to slip into her role as the unhappy Jessie. She is also more youthful and attractive in appearance than the role as usually cast, a woman described in the script as being in her late thirties or early forties (played on Broadway by Kathy Bates originally and Edie Falco in a revival) and she rushes through some of her dialogue. Yet she slowly starts to reveal Jessie’s underlying sadness and depression as the story progresses.
closes October 8, 2016
Details and tickets
A real surprise is the fact that the director of this play, Madison Middleton, is a high school junior participating in Highwood’s Directing Fellowship Program. She provides mature and skilled direction in helping the two women circle about the tiny living area. They alternate confronting and avoiding each other as they perform humdrum tasks such as cleaning and preparing hot chocolate. Yet the growing tension is apparent and compelling.
Special kudos also go to Orion Stekoll’s set design and the Jason Reid’s prop design. The living room and kitchen set is utterly realistic and appropriate. It is an unpretentious home lovingly supplied with just the right necessary and decorative touches.
If you have never seen ‘NIGHT, MOTHER, it is an essential theatre experience. (The film adaptation with Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft is adequate, but nowhere near as potent.) The Your Theatre at The Highwood Theatre production has already been extended to a third weekend, but seats in the small space are likely to go quickly.
‘NIGHT, MOTHER by Marsha Norman. Directed by Madison Middleton. Featuring Melissa B. Robinson and Jennifer Berry George. Set Design: Orion Stekoll. Lighting Design: Kevin Kearney. Prop Design: Jason Reid. Costume Design: Tip Letsche. Crew: Simon Ellerbe, Jonah Witte, Owen Gibson. Production Manager: Toly Yarup. Presented by Your Theatre at The Highwood Theatre. Reviewed by Steven McKnight.