Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association
There is something marvelously compact about Marsha Norman’s ‘Night Mother, a play that begins with a grown daughter informing her mother that she will be killing herself before the night is over. Its dialogue structure and simple, clear emotional content make it a nearly perfect choice for a video presentation in a pandemic, and Invictus Theatre and director Diane Sintich bring it to life in a Zoom production that, though marred by overzealous editing, features two honest, wrenching performances that will break your heart.
That there has been an ongoing and massive misconnection between Jessie (Courtney Gardner) and Thelma (Tekeisha Yelton Hunter) is clear from the start, as we watch the younger woman busying herself with putting her affairs in order while mother Jessie, having been oblivious to any clue she has been given about her daughter’s state of mind, can’t even parse the flat, direct statement her daughter makes about her intention. Gardner walks Jessie through the stages of grief, her initial denial morphing into focused bargaining (couldn’t Thelma just give it a little more time?) before finally settling into a nearly disbelieving acceptance.
Her emotional roller-coaster ride through this horrific situation contrasts with the mostly matter-of-fact deliveries that Hunter brings to Thelma—clearly a wall that the character has built as insulation against what she knows will happen when she tells Jessie. That forced calm keeps her going as she walks through her pre-suicide checklist, making sure her mother can manage once she is gone. This is not a deeply emotional suicide; it is one born out of a lifetime of pain and anguish, failure, and loss, and in this moment it is simply a necessary final step. Thanks to Hunter’s powerful performance—aided by a lot of closeups from Sintich, taking full advantage of the intimacy that video allows—the audience is invited to see inside of Thelma’s tormented mind, to understand that she has become so lost in the depths of her own despair that she cannot escape them.
Despite the pain, both intensely contained and explosively discharged, that both actresses brilliantly portray here, the overall production is at times overwhelmed by some decisions that show that Sintich, like everyone else, is a neophyte at using this new medium. While the shots that show handoffs of properties from one character to the other work about as well as they can—we’ve all grown accustomed to the whole push something into the camera’s eye and then pull it away in another view thing by now—and don’t pull us from the moment, the overuse of one-shots in quick back and forth conversations unfortunately does. I found myself practically dizzy from mental whiplash quite a few times; on occasion, I found it easier just to close my eyes momentarily. The split-screen view that allows us to see both characters at all times works much better, the only exception being when one character has a longer monologue (though even then we are being denied the other one’s facial reaction).
Fortunately, this technical problem—a byproduct of the Zoom format—recedes into the background when compared with the depth of the characterizations the actors and director manage to elicit. Norman’s play sets up an impossibly hopeless emotional situation and Invictus’ production evokes it forcefully. Watching both actresses react to Thelma’s final “‘Night, Mother” is a gut-punch, and Jessie’s heartwrenching pain afterward is completely earned. This is not an easy play to watch (especially if you have children and/or family members struggling with depression), but it is one that is not easily forgotten.
‘Night, Mother is now available for streaming online until Nov 8 from Invictus Theatre. The show runs approximately 90 minutes with no intermission. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.