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Review: “’night Mother” by Marsha Norman

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Desert Rose Playhouse presents a thoughtful evening of theater in Marsha Norman’s richly rewarding “’night Mother.” The 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning, two-person play remains powerful. The playwright envisioned “’night Mother” as “a three-act play with no intermission,” and the play neatly rises and falls on the journey toward an emotional conclusion.


A clock on stage is set to real time, which is running out for two women. Jessie is an adult daughter whose life has simply not worked out. She was married and had a child, but her husband left her, and her son turned to drugs and crime. She lives reclusively—lonely and miserable—with her mother, Thelma. Thelma compulsively eats candy and watches television. She lets Jessie take care of her. As empty as her life is, she blithely enjoys it. Then Jessie calmly announces that she plans to commit suicide that night. The ensuing dialogue between Jessie and Thelma explores each character and their interaction. This last night together contains disclosures and confessions—perhaps the first honest communication of their lives. The characters are unwrapped, like Thelma’s candies or the slipcovered sofa. Jessie’s declaration for death is not a cry for help; it is Jessie’s attempt to take control of her existence and to prepare her mother for her loss. Although Jessie suffers from epilepsy—symbolic of her inability to regulate her life—she is feeling better than she has in years. Her last year has been seizure free. Her disease is not terminal.

Playwright Norman eschews sentimentality, and by the play’s end, both characters are strengthened by what the author calls Jessie’s “requiem mass.” Set Designer Kathy Freed and her crew have constructed a detailed kitchen and living room with a hall leading to a Jessie’s bedroom door center stage. The cabinets are stocked with food, the drawers filled with utensils, and the TV covered with bric-a-brac. The occupants of this lived-in setting are effectively costumed by Teddy Eggleston. Thelma wears a shapeless pastel housedress (with the edge of a plain slip peaking out), floral house slippers and SuppHose. Jessie is clad in a black sweater with grey shirt and pants.

Director Shiela Freed keeps her characters in constant domestic motion, and they only touch in the last minutes. Shani Madden plays Jessie with determination, control, and compassion. She gains strength through the performance until her final act seems somehow brave, almost heroic. Georgia Athearn’s Thelma, taken by surprise, alternately cajoles, bullies, and begs, but she finally comes to understand her daughter. Athearn’s final moments are harrowing. This is one of Desert Rose’s best productions, and it will only get better as the actors work together and resolve, for example, the awkwardness of the play’s final physical struggle.

“’night Mother” is playing at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 6921-E Montgomery NE, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through August 27. Tickets are $10 general public, $8 seniors and students. Call 881-0503.