Hampstead Theatres continues its trip down memory lane with Marsha Norman’s two-hander ‘night Mother which had its UK premiere at the venue in 1985, and it’s fascinating over 35 years later to see a play that has the courage of its convictions, a drama that stays true to its characters with no soapy or simplistic conclusion that would betray its purpose. Instead, it holds the line to offer a female-focused narrative about mental health and suicide that feels incredibly modern, slowly unfolding its depth and, eventually, a great poignancy. Roxana Silbert’s production finds a calm authority in its central character, a women who knows without fuss or melodrama, that this will be her last night alive.
Running at around 80-minutes and playing in real time, ‘night Mother is one continual Act with no scene breaks or pauses just a rolling conversation between a mother and daughter focused on the past and the future, taking place in a single room, a combined living room and kitchen in a detached house in rural America. It’s a physical space in which the characters can busy themselves with domestic chores that Norman uses as surface distractions for Thelma and Jessie, allowing them to talk more openly while giving their hands and brains some practical tasks to perform.
But these activities are also Norman’s milestones or dramatic markers that signify directional change in the discussion as well as points of no return for Jessie who spends this time striking these items from her to do list, each one moving her closer to the end she craves. The action, therefore, becomes a cumulative process of ending, a rounding off or settling of accounts in which Jessie uses refilling the sweet jars, replacing the sofa cover or cleaning the fridge as a signals that she has provided a tidy legacy for her mother in the aftermath of Jessie’s death, each task a stepping stone to what is to Jessie an inevitable and irrecoverable conclusion.
That Norman stages her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama in this very domestic environment is extremely pointed, placing within it two generations of women with very different outlooks and opportunities. Thelma has been a housewife all her adult life, content to take things as they come and accept the world as it exists, finding comfort and enjoyment in her family, gossip about the neighbours, crochet and television, all the things the made up the lives of her generation in 1985. Yet, offered exactly the same things – a husband and son – Jessie is repelled by the same circumstances, and while never overtly stated, Norman hints that female liberation of which Jessie would have been one of the first to benefit from birth has done more to confine her than her mother’s more traditional experience in the past 40 years.
Something about Jessie’s life just doesn’t fit, and the things her mother can live for are not enough to sustain the daughter. The promise of love and children has disappointed her, and yet Norman never offers any suggestion that Jessie had the chance of independence in her youth through career, friends or agency, implying these avenues were always closed to her. What is left out of Jessie’s story is almost as important as the details Norman shares with the audience, helping to create a context in which this woman sees only one possible outcome. That this last night is filled with traditional domestic chores is deliberate, a place where both women ended-up but with acres of space between their opposing responses to its strictures.
And Norman proffers two contrasting forms of domestic act, the routine and everyday requirements of sustenance and cleanliness, and the maternal acts of care that are couched in memories of childhood treats. That both Thelma and Jessie perform these acts gives depth and shape to the play, while Norman adds intrigue by changing the purpose of character actions as they are received. In one rare moment in the play, Thelma takes charge, preparing a pan of hot chocolate at Jessie’s request as a final nod to the mother-daughter relationship that once existed between them, almost an echo from the past. Except in the present it has soured, and the moment of proximity they crave in carrying-out this forgotten ritual results in failure because tastes and personalities have shifted. What was Thelma’s maternal act of kindness to her daughter is undercut by their mutual reaction to it which is not at all what they remember and Norman uses this to add layers to their complex relationship.
Likewise, for much of the play, it is Jessie who adopts the mother-provider role, she is replenishing, cleaning and giving clear instruction to Thelma on where things are kept, what she should do next and how the household should be organised which creates a dependency in her mother that is both emotional and physical, relying on Jessie to keep the home in domestic order. But is Jessie acting out of love, obligation or some other motive? Silberg’s production for the Hampstead Theatre suggests the latter options, that there is no real affection or understanding between the women, and it may never have existed, so although Jessie wants to think she’s leaving her mother well provided for, her ministrations are partially to allay her own conscience and reduce any criticism from her brother and sister-in-law, but instead the systematic performance of these tasks are carried out primarily to focus her own determination, to create a roadmap for this final 80-minutes that will occupy her until the time is right.
That this is a suicide story is clear from the beginning and Norman never deviates from an ending her protagonist is open about, announcing it in the first minutes of the play and one she is quietly determined to reach. Despite the conversation that unfolds, the revelations and home truths that emerge, even a spot of pleading, ‘night Mother is admirably never swayed from that outcome. We see this all too rarely in modern drama and instead women are often dissuaded from their rational choices at the eleventh hour by a romantic sensibility, a prudish morality or the need for an unrealistic happy ending (often resulting in a woman giving up control of her choices or her body), so Norman’s treatment of Jessie as a woman who has made a clear-headed decision about her life and her body, weighed-up all the options available to her and quite coolly puts her plan into action, is respectful, and a model for how female characters can be constructed.
The introduction of absent male characters, Thelma’s husband as well as Jessie’s husband and son, creates some interesting parallels between the two women, exploring the mutual failure of their marriages and its impact on the women’s ability to shape and direct their lives. In fact, it reinforces the approach that Norman has taken to her female characters, Thelma largely at ease with the loveless marriage she endured, although in this Hampstead production there are hints of resentment when she speaks of him, while the more emotionally open Jessie has deep feeling for all three men, enjoying and suffering from fuller relationships that have societally left her in the same single state as her mother but have ultimately brought her very little joy or peace of mind.
The crucial connection is with Jessie’s father and, like Alice Birch’s fascinating Anatomy of a Suicide, there is a subtle thread here about inherited suicide, a strand that gets to the heart of the troubled relationship between Jessie and Thelma which stretches back to childhood when her father was the preferred parent despite his faults. Norman is also subtle in presenting the circumstances of his death, there are hints he may have taken his own life following a series of seizures that have similarly plagued his daughter, and what connection there might be between the outcome for these characters, Norman leaves the audience to suppose. At the very least, it adds greater context to Thelma’s behaviour as the past repeats itself and she is, once again, powerless to prevent it.
Jessie is an interesting character to pitch, and Rebecca Night opts for clarity of thought and a decisiveness that apply as much to the management of household tasks as to the arrangements for her final evening. The text suggests Jessie is in one of her brighter phases which Night builds on in the early part of this duologue to give momentum and authority to the character, which also offers the audience and Thelma some hope that Jessie will change her mind. As the revelations unfold and we come to learn more about Jessie’s longer-term depression and struggles, Night creates space for emotional connections to family, memory and the hopes she once had some of which become very affecting. But that certainty of purpose never wavers even as the conversation loops and flounders, and it sits beneath every aspect of Night’s presentation of Jessie and it is what makes her such a rare and interesting creation.
It’s great to see Stockard Channing back on the London stage following Apologia in 2017, and although ‘night Mother is a similar American family story, Thelma is a far more ambiguous character to play. Channing places her somewhere between a wishful co-dependence with her daughter and a far more independent personality than Thelma is prepared to admit to herself. There is neediness and fear in the mix with a little bitterness about the repeated abandonment that sometimes plays out as a sulky destructiveness, but she knows the connection with Jessie is damaged beyond repair so Channing has Thelma almost stand back and let events play out with occasional half-hearted appeals to delay. In other hands, Thelma could be more fragile, a Tennessee Williams mother-figure lost in her own world and while Channing momentarily lingers here, like Jessie, there is also an underlying strength, that she has found the secret to coping with her life, leaving a lasting knowledge that she will be just fine tomorrow.
Staged by Ti Green, this production retains its original 1980s setting – a feature of all of the Hampstead reopening productions – but is never overt in its presentation of the decade. The design choices are more timeless, suggesting a much lived-in home with accents from the 50s onwards that imply an accumulated family life over many decades while aspects of it start to look a little rundown. But it is also a single storey country place, so Green uses wood for the flooring and surfaces to suggest what may once have been a small, timber farm or ranch house with a sense of limited rooms beyond and a tight-knit, claustrophobic community outside.
With a few performances ahead of press night later this week, the building chemistry between the actors can only grow which will help with establishment in the early scenes and those marked directional shifts in discussion and theme. But in Silbert’s staging, the ending is already powerful, making Norman’s 40-year old Pulitzer-winning play feel bold and purposeful.