Monday, January 19, 2015

'Night Mother at Ion Theater a Masterpiece

In 1977, my mother called to tell me that Actors Theater of Louisville announced the winner of its Humana Festival of new plays: Getting Out by Marsha Norman received the top award. The news was exciting since Marsha and I graduated in the same class at Durrett High School in Louisville, and I was delighted about her success. When I moved from Connecticut to California months later, I discovered the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles was producing the play, so I rushed to see it. The story of a girl leaving prison after eight years, Getting Out takes its heroine on a jagged journey of re-entry in her hometown of Louisville, a place and time in stark contrast to her recent past. The somber tale unravels with brittle challenges and tangled emotions at every turn. I found it deserving of the award for a debut play.

So it was no surprise when I learned six years later that Marsha's play, 'Night Mother (1983), was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and countless other awards. Instead of a re-entry, Jessie decides to say good-bye and spends the next ninety minutes preparing her mother for her pending suicide. Somehow, I missed the play when it was staged over the years, and even the movie, with Anne Bancroft and Cissey Spacek. The stars never aligned, that is, until Saturday afternoon when I caught an opening performance at the Ion Theater in San Diego.

From the moment the two actors deliver first lines, the audience is caught in a web of family dysfunction and despair, like slow-rotting garbage in the kitchen-living room area of the modest  home, set in a poor black, rural neighborhood. Picture frames hang on the wall with no pictures inside, suggesting the vacant relationship Jessie occupies with her mother. The harder Jessie tries to assure Mama the plan is irrevocable and it has nothing to do with her, the more Mama strives to prevent it. In the course of the unwinding Saturday night scene, the pair launch into a game of truth. We learn about the father who died, and the wife who divulges she never really loved him, but knew Jessie did. He said very little, just sat there, except when making pipe cleaner figures for his daughter. We hear about the insensitive brother whose wife gives Jessie the same, wrong-sized slippers every year for Christmas. And there's Cecil, Jessie's ex, who left her high and dry so she's forced to move back with Mama. And her son Ricky, a worthless kid who steals for a drug habit, according to Jessie, but hasn't finished growing up, according to her mom.

In the midst of it all, Jessie organizes her mother's pills and candy, writes reminder notes, and instructs her on various chores, like running the washing machine, calling for groceries, giving the brother Jessie's list of  Christmas gifts for Mama, and notifying the police after the plan is completed. A play that delves into such raw territory could dissolve into a funeral march, but the writing is so poignant and playful, and the actors so immersed in character, that I found myself riveted to them, relating in a way that was both frightening and real. This is family dysfunction that is recognizable, taken to its final chapter when secrets seep out and anger explodes, revealing a tangible tragedy that makes sense of it all, but far too late for Jessie. The blast jars us in our seats.

Yolanda Franklin as Jessie and Sylvia M'Lafi Thompson as Mama are seasoned performers, with Thompson delivering a well-honed portrayal of the desperate but flawed mother whose ignorance, fear, and inaction denied her daughter the chance for a better life. The direction by Glenn Paris renders a powerful production, with threads of universal human experience expertly woven into the fabric of  poor black culture, and effects of societal stigma rendering the final, unexpected blow.

The writing soars, to provide the foundation, structure, and finishing touches which elevate the play to the level of a dramatic masterpiece about the human condition. For that, Pulitzer prizes are awarded.