To bring the extraordinarily difficult topic of suicide to the stage is one thing, to do so while at the same time provoking your audience to see some humor, love, and moments of familial comfort in the cracks in between an otherwise unwavering resolve to do the unthinkable, is quite another. Anacostia Playhouse’s production of Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prizing-winning play, “‘night Mother,” does an impressive job of harnessing just about every emotional nuance possible in order to offer up a mirror to the audience so that onlookers can easily pinpoint the commonalities and connections—that which makes us all human.
…an impressive job of harnessing just about every emotional nuance…a sophisticated subtlety and a power inherent in the direction…
Director Deidra Starnes’ vision for this play encompasses both the power of women and the power of love—two very pivotal elements seemingly central to much of what the Anacostia Playhouse presents. In the intricately woven fabric of this mother/daughter relationship, Starnes draws our eyes to their utter vulnerability, their susceptibility to pain and suffering, but also to the strength that is inherent within each of the characters and how such strength becomes more pronounced within the umbrella of their love, even though that love may seem problematic at points.
We meet Jessie and her mom Thelma at a crossroads of sorts. Thelma is an older woman teetering on the edge of needing constant assistance and yet she resists being “taken care of.” Meanwhile, Jessie also needs someone to assist her but for a much different reason. Jessie suffers from epilepsy. In Jessie’s estimation, her life has slowly been unraveling for some years now. She’s lost her husband; her son’s chosen a less than desirable life path; she can’t stand to be in the presence of her brother and sister-in-law; and she resents her mother for taking her in though there really was no other option on the table. Her choice to kill herself in her mother’s house using her father’s gun almost seems a requiem for a dream. Jessie can’t get back all of the people and things that she’s lost and she can’t even figure out how to get back just the dream of her life, so she will create her own alternate reality in which suicide is a safe answer to a very troubling question.
From the very beginning of the show—even if you know nothing about the play—you quickly discover that this is indeed about someone contemplating suicide, an exceedingly difficult topic to broach, and yet, one that is so important to demystify and thus make it something about which people willingly talk. Jessie and her mother engage in a 90-minute-long conversation about the meaning of life, the unknown of death, and the heartaches and joys of the everyday. The effortless back and forth between the two women; the, at times, volatile dance in which they engage; and even the fraught silences are the stuff of dramatic mother/daughter magic, thanks largely to Starnes and of course, the two actors shouldering the emotional weight of this iconic piece of theatre.
Lezlie Hatcher as Jessie holds nothing back as she explores the vicissitudes of the character’s inner struggle—to be or not to be, fundamentally so. Hatcher brings audiences into the painful puzzle with which she is faced.That is to say, she takes us with her as Jessie catches glimpses of hope only to have that hope vanish in light of a simple word, or a name, or a sip of cocoa that just isn’t what it should be. Hatcher opens herself up completely and unselfishly and makes this production work as it needs to.
The role of Thelma is elegantly handled by Patricia Willliams-Dugueye. Williams-Dugueye appears all too conversant with the wretched fate of a mother about to lose her only daughter. There is a classic Greek tragedy feel to her performance inasmuch as her outward stalwartness brushes up against the devastated inner life of the character—therein is where she makes some truly spectacular moments of theatre happen. It is in some of her character’s simplest lines that she manages to wring out a mother’s heartache. When, for instance, Thelma pleads, “We’re not through yet. We’ve got a lot of things to take care of here,” the actor poignantly conveys a lifetime of words unspoken.
If there is anything that could be hampering this production somewhat, it is the set. Given the already intimate space of the Anacostia Playhouse, April Joy’s set design seems somewhat confining. Yes, Norman does set her play entirely within the women’s kitchen/living room, and yet, it would have been nice to see a little more fluidity and a little less cardboard stiffness. The lighting and sound effects by Jerrett Harrington commendably accent the narrative where required. Overall, this iteration of “‘night Mother” does not disappoint. There’s a sophisticated subtlety and a power inherent in the direction that helps Marsha Norman’s award-winning play find a brave new home on this Anacostia stage.
Running time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
“‘night Mother” runs through May 13, 2023 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl SE, Washington, DC 20020. For tickets and more information, click here.