Kansas City Actors Theater pairs two of the city’s best performers for its production of “‘night Mother,” the drama that established playwright Marsha Norman’s national reputation. Her two-character mother-daughter work that deals frankly with the shattering effects of suicide won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Performed in just over 90 minutes without an intermission, the play is meant to be a psychological pressure-cooker, filling the audience with a growing sense of dread as Norman guides them to an explosive conclusion. Which is not to say the play lacks humor. There is, in fact, a surprising comedic streak that comes to life at odd moments when Norman lets loose on the inherit absurdities of all family relationships.
The play is set in the home of Thelma Cates, who is nearing 60 and living with her daughter, Jessie, a 40-something divorced woman whose petty-criminal teenage son has fled to parts unknown. At the outset, Jessie is busily getting things arranged and organized, foreshadowing events with what should be alarm-bell questions: Where is Daddy’s gun? Do you have any old towels or a plastic sheet?
Thelma’s out-to-lunch detachment quickly transitions to alarm after Jessie makes her intention known. Tonight she will end her life. And she’s taken care of all the details — phone numbers, grocery deliveries — that Thelma will need as an aging single woman. Jessie has arranged the refrigerator’s contents with a supply sergeant’s precision and has done the same with the kitchen cabinets.
When Thelma sees that Jessie is serious about her plan, panic sets in. She goes through a blizzard of emotions: Guilt, anger, remorse, regret, sorrow. She begs. She cajoles. She makes desperate suggestions: I could sing until you change your mind. We could get a dog!
The tough sell in this show is just why Jessie chooses to end her life. She expresses no overt hostility to her mother. Instead, she seems loving and conscientious. The big issue is that Jessie was an epileptic and her mother never explained it to her, leaving Jessie to wonder why she would black out and wake up in different clothes. But is that enough for Jessie to be so sadistic that she plans to kill herself in a locked room with her anguished mother pleading at the door?
Jessie’s one argument that makes sense is about control. Suicide is one act where she, and only she, can make the decision. Nobody else matters. Nobody else is calling the tune.
Director Sidonie Garrett turned to two veteran actresses, both of whom have through the years performed spectacularly under Garrett’s direction: Jan Rogge as Thelma and Cinnamon Schultz as Jessie. Rogge is at her intense best, anguished and comic, though Thelma seems to be the simpler role. Her volatile reaction to her daughter’s decision is what you would expect. This is a riveting performance that could easily have gone over the top — but didn’t.
Schultz, inhabiting the play’s murkier, more ambiguous role, makes the smart choice to underplay as Jessie. The actor conveys the information the audience needs. But the playwright has made Jessie’s motivations confusing and obscure, and Schultz never quite conquers that challenge. I was looking for a sharp-edged intensity that remained elusive.
Kenneth J. Martin’s scenic design provides an unfussy realistic set: A living room with a sofa and armchair, a claustrophobic kitchenette with a refrigerator festooned with magnets and a small table and two chairs to one side. Around the room are small glass trays which Jessie dutifully keeps filled with candies for her mom’s sweet tooth. Shane Rowse’s subtle lighting helps drive the show’s mood shifts.
Norman’s play, despite its prizes and celebrity, is a mixed bag. Under a microscope you could easily point to logical inconsistencies and questionable motivations. But it succeeds in one way: It forces us to consider our own family relationships and the choices we make and don’t make. In that way, Norman delivers a meaningful piece of theater.
Note: This review was based on the second preview performance, a choice necessitated by an approaching snow and ice storm. I have no doubt that both actresses will settle into their roles as the run continues.
“‘night, Mother” runs through Jan. 26 at City Stage in Union Station. Call 816-235-6222 or visit www.actorskc.org.