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Reviewed by Susanna Wu-Pong
Though I had not heard of the Pulitzer Prize winning drama ‘night Mother before seeing the play, it’s not a story I will likely forget. It is easy to see why after experiencing Firehouse Theatre’s tightly written, gripping, and authentic production that brings to life a biography of suicide.
The play begins with a seemingly mundane day in the life of a mother (Thelma, played by Catherine Shaffner) and dutiful daughter (Jessie, played by Kimberly Jones Clark). Jessie’s patience with her mother’s demands seems almost supernatural until we begin to get a sense of the subtext to the story. The young woman is there to tell her mother she is going to kill herself in ninety minutes.
With this shocking disclosure, Jessie leads Thelma – kicking and screaming, literally at times – through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. Meanwhile, playwright Marsha Norman’s superbly written dialogue leads the audience seamlessly and organically through each stage. Clark (Sons of the Prophet, Great American Trailer Park Musical) provides a steady, consistent, and calm but richly nuanced portrayal of Jessie, who, from our perspective, is strangely at peace with her decision and its looming consequences. In vivid contrast, Thelma is expressing abundant emotion for both women. Shaffner (Nunsense, Steel Magnolias) effortlessly and skillfully embodies each stage and transition as the clock ticks away during Jessie’s terrible countdown. As Thelma evolves through each stage of grief, she takes the audience with her, each of us trying to avoid falling down this terrible downward spiral. We feel every single ounce of Thelma’s increasing panic and horror as the ninety minutes elapse.
The play, though serious and stunningly real, also expands our understanding of the nature of depression and suicide and the impact of this devastating and deadly illness on loved ones. The audience is inherently changed by this production; we will feel and react differently when we are next confronted with the issue. The skill with which Director David Emerson Toney and Assistant Director Jeannie Melcher artfully combine costume (Margarette Joyner), lighting (Geno Brantley), set (Edwin Slipek) and sound (Joey Luck) is a theatrical pleasure, despite the solemn nature of ’night Mother.
This play is best suited for older, mature teenagers and adults.
A Firehouse Theatre Project production, ‘night Mother runs through October 19 at Firehouse Theater, 1609 West Broad Street, Richmond. Free parking is available for patrons in the Lowe’s parking lot across the street. Call 355-2001 for tickets or visit Firehouse Theatre Project