Suicide announcement rattles mom in ”night, Mother’

Ninette Mordaunt, left, plays Mama and Lori Stewart is her suicidal daughter Jessie in “‘night, Mother.” (Courtesy of Russell Maynor)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Two barren lives stand at the precipice of destruction in Marsha Norman’s “‘night, Mother.”

The 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning autopsies the entangled relationship between a mother and daughter. As daughter Jessie nonchalantly prepares to do Mama’s nails, she calmly announces her plans to commit suicide.

This searing drama fraught with family secrets opens at the Aux Dog Theatre in Nob Hill on Friday, June 13 and runs through June 29.

The play unfolds as the mother, Thelma, played by Ninette Mordaunt, desperately tries to convince Jessie that life is worth living even though she cannot feel her own pain. Jessie is a middle-aged epileptic who has moved back in to care for her mother. Her husband has abandoned her, she cannot work and her son is a drug-addicted runaway.

“You can tell there’s love in their relationship but it’s damaged,” director Michael Miller said.

The family has functioned on a strictly superficial basis until Jessie shatters their silence by declaring her intentions, he said. Issues and truths begin to peel off like the skin of an onion.

At first Mama refuses to take Jessie seriously, but as Jessie begins tidying up the house and making lists of things to be looked after, her sense of desperation penetrates her mother’s denial.

“Do we have the right to decide our own fates?” Miller asked. “Can we change somebody’s mind? At what point do we intervene?”

The offspring of a three-generation entertainment family, Miller will direct his daughter Lori Stewart as Jessie. The pair have been acting so long they skip the typical conflicts of parents and children who work together, he said.

“It’s actually very collaborative,” Miller said. “We’ve done theater most of our lives.

“I don’t tell the actors where to go and what to do. I concentrate on the characters and the relationship between the two.”

As the secrets unspool, Jessie learns she actually developed epilepsy as a young child, not after falling off a horse as an adult, like she had long believed.

“She says if she’d known that, she never would have gotten on the horse,” Miller said. “Jessie was very close to her father, and her mother and her father didn’t share any love. It was a marriage of convenience.”

The play is raw and unrelenting, he acknowledged.

“The payoff is what does my relationship with my family look like?” Miller said. “I would say if you have a serious issue like this in your family, don’t come.”

Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft starred in the 1986 film version of “‘night, Mother.” A 2004 Broadway revival starred Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn. Oprah Winfrey is reportedly in talks for another Broadway version with Audra McDonald as Jessie.

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