By Patrick Hurley
Under the right circumstances, there is opportunity in Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize Winning masterpiece ‘night Mother, for the verisimilitude of the actors to allow suspension of disbelief to slowly evaporate from the theater, creating an experience for an audience that is remarkable. The building intensity, like a freight train, is both exhilarating and terrifying. The current production of ‘night Mother, playing now through December 14 at The Lost Studio in Hollywood, falls short of such an experience.
The challenge of taking on such a familiar play, written thirty years ago, is that the familiarity of the work by the audience makes the director’s and the actors’ jobs much more difficult. Those who are unfamiliar with the play, may be able to extract more from this production than those of us who know it well, because it has certain strengths that sometime compensate for its weaknesses.
The story is about Jessie (Sylva Kelegian), a middle-aged woman who lives with her mother, Thelma (Lisa Richards), and who has decided to commit suicide. The play deals, in real time, with the night that Jessie has decided to go through with her suicide. She tells her mother, only a few minutes into the play, in order to prepare her mother for life without her. She makes it very clear that she cannot be talked out of it.
The play deals, for ninety minutes, with Thelma’s desperation and desire to talk her daughter out of killing herself. Thelma is a character that goes through a gamut of bargaining and denial and eventual pleading, and as the audience, we are always on her side. An actress needn’t do anything to gain our empathy, she just has to show up for that part. However, she must work wonders to control the tension and tempo of the play. Since Jessie is unflappable, it all falls on Thelma’s shoulders, or rather, the actress playing Thelma.
Jessie is unchangeable. She is a victim, but she is also resolute, and so her decision to tell her mother could be perceived as cruel, therefore she must establish some kind of empathetic reaction from the audience. She must not come across as callous, and we should feel for her. Otherwise, we can’t fully invest in Thelma’s objective. We want Thelma to talk her out of it. If we don’t have invested interest in Thelma succeeding, the play would fall flat. Marsha Norman has crafted a brilliantly structured play. The rise of tension as the hour of Jessie’s suicide approaches is astonishing in just the dialogue. In its ideas and overall meaning, it is poetic. The inertia of life, the everyday mundaneness of it all, brought into almost terrifying focus is a thing of theatrical beauty.
This production, in a nicely intimate space which it makes great use of with a wonderful set, aims for this beauty, and understands the ordinariness of everyday life. Production designer Jacob Whitmore brings us into a small, rural house, and the attention to detail, heightens the reality of a play like this.
Director Aliah Whitmore keeps the actresses a little too confined. They are seated downstage for long periods of time, and the pace slows because of it. This play is a long build, with ridiculously high stakes, so there is no real reason for these characters to ever appear comfortable. Once the climactic moment of the play begins, there needs to be an inevitability to it, and that may be slightly missing from this production.
One of the main reasons for the reduced level of tension comes from Lisa Richard’s performance. As Thelma, she is sweet and her giggle is winsome. She handles the moments of reminiscence quite nicely, as well as the humor. When she must reach the next level, however, she doesn’t fully get there. The desperation and anger are close, but her break is ineffectual. It doesn’t feel as earned as it should. It is a really difficult role, and she is successful enough to win the audience over, but not enough to leave us with the gut punch that this role is capable of.
Sylva Kelegian gives Jessie some nice nuances. It’s the little details in her performance that really stand out. The way she clicks a pen, for instance, such a seemingly insignificant detail that says something profoundly significant about control. She plays upon Jessie’s resolve with nicely controlled movements. Some of her reactions to Thelma were beautifully authentic. When Thelma calls Jessie’s son by the wrong name, which may have been a flub by the actress, Jessie rolls her eyes and corrects her under her breath. It was a nice mother/daughter moment that may have been an entire accident, but was capitalized on by a genuine performance.
In the end, this is a wonderfully complex, darkly tragic, deeply human story, and the attempts by this production are worthy, just in the attempts themselves. If it falls short in places, it is not for lack of want. For it is the threat of failure that makes art great, and it is only by risking that failure that great art can be made.
By Marsha Norman
Directed by Aliah Whitmore
Nov 1-Dec. 14
The Lost Studio
130 South La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036