Marsha Norman’s play at Hampstead Theatre explores the complex relationship between a mother and her daughter who wants to die
“I’m going to kill myself, Mama.” Jessie (Rebecca Night) stands in the kitchen of her mother’s house, holding a gun from the attic that belonged to her late father. Her “Mama”, Thelma (Stockard Channing), rolls her eyes. “Very funny,” she replies. “Don’t make jokes, Jessie, I’m too old for jokes.” But Jessie is not joking. She plans to die by suicide later that night and has everything planned out – she just wants her mother to be prepared.
These are the opening minutes of ’Night, Mother, Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer-winning drama from 1982 currently being revived at the Hampstead Theatre. Jessie has been compiling lists for her Mama, telling her exactly what to do when she hears the gunshot, who to call in what order. It’s a bleak set up, but one infused with dark humour. Jessie wants this last evening to be nice and for Mama to be prepared for life on her own, refilling the large jars of sweets in her cupboards and offering her a manicure to soften the metaphorical blow.
There’s a still acceptance in Night’s understated performance as Jessie, a woman safe in the knowledge of the way things will play out. Dressed in the loose jeans and long jumper of someone who doesn’t see the need to make an effort anymore, she shoelessly paces the room, trying to be practical about things and do what needs to be done. It’s clear, from the way Night carries herself and the look in her eyes, that Jessie is exhausted. We learn that she is epileptic and has suffered seizures since falling off a horse years ago. She hasn’t had one for a year – all the more reason to live, Mama says – but it’s only made things clearer for Jessie. She’s divorced, her estranged son is a criminal and she’s caring for her mother just for something to do.
The action of ’Night, Mother plays out in real time in Mama’s ranch-like home, designed by Ti Green with its rich mahogany walls and surfaces strewn with crochet and newspapers. It’s old-fashioned, but well-maintained – an embodiment of Thelma herself, who despite the grey hair piled on top of head and slightly dowdy suit, still holds herself with poise, speaking in a luxurious drawl.
Mama remains in the room throughout the show’s 80 minute, fearful of what might happen if she leaves, while Jessie briefly dips out a couple of times to locate the items she wants to leave behind. Having the two actors stay on stage for nearly the whole performance is a challenge within the text, but one that can be remedied with clever direction. But the production feels somewhat static. There’s a lack of movement and touch between the pair, even when they express their love. The strong script is rarely elevated beyond two women in a room talking.
Night occasionally breaks this to shout when unable to hold in her anger anymore, but Channing’s moments of rage, pushing pots and pans off the side, feel slightly lacklustre and elicit unfortunate titters, rather than gasps, from the audience. Her performance is never quite whacked up high enough to show a woman truly desperate for her daughter to stay, who can’t imagine her life without her. Na alles, Thelma’s name is never mentioned in the script – we know her only as Mama, her identity intrinsically connected to Jessie. We should be left harrowed by one unbearable question – who is Mama without her daughter? – but the production fails to fully capture the pain present in Norman’s words.
‘’Night, Mother’ runs at Hampstead Theatre until 4 Desember
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