'night, Mother starts out innocently enough: A young woman asks her mother for some old towels and bedsheets and a bucket. But then she asks for a gun.
From the first five minutes of Marsha Norman's 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama - being performed by New Ground Theatre through May 9 - an undercurrent of dread runs beneath some engaging and natural-sounding dialogue I've ever heard delivered onstage. When, on opening night, the play reached its inevitable but still shocking conclusion an hour-and-a-half later, I felt as if I'd been through an emotional wringer. Norman's script is powerful and complex - funny and off-handed and unbearably heart-wrenching in its exploration of a relationship between a mother and her epileptic, suicidal daughter - and I can't get the second-to-last line out of my head.
Of course, Norman's script wouldn't have made such an emotional impact on me if Lora Adams hadn't done such fine work of directing two of the area's most talented female actors in the roles of the mother, Thelma (Susan Perrin-Sallak), and the daughter, Jessie (Jamie Em Behncke). I can't give enough praise, or express enough of my awe, to these women, who poured so much feeling and physical effort into their performances; I don't know how they mustered the strength to drive home after the show.
Sallak was spot-on as the (former) farmer's wife who doesn't see the point of analyzing life's details. She utilized nearly every line of dialogue to convey a different, specific emotion, and I particularly enjoyed watching her anger and resentment slowly build as she tried to guilt her daughter into sticking around in the land of the living. ("Well, whoever promised you a good time?") And the scene in which she blames herself as the cause of her daughter's epilepsy was very poignant and personal to me, especially as a mom who feels responsible for... well, just about everything to do with my daughter.
Meanwhile, Behncke's interpretation of the divorced adult daughter with a troublesome son beautifully conveyed her character's helplessness and stubborn acceptance of the decision she's made. I was most impressed with how easily - or so it seemed to me - her character's grief seeped out of her when she discovered an unknown detail about her divorce.
Divorce, epilepsy, suicide... . I know: 'night, Mother sounds like a Nicholas Sparks novel at its worst. And I have a feeling some potential audience members will cast Mother off as too much of an emotional downer to be fulfilling. But they'd be missing out. There are plenty of funny and endearing moments between the characters here that have universal appeal (especially, I think, to a Midwestern audience). And even though the play ends the way most people will predict it will, it's the getting there, and the getting to know the characters, that makes seeing this short play so worthwhile. Even the saddest moments made me want to gather my loved ones closer to me, and appreciate the times I do get to spend with them, instead of worrying about the inevitability of death.
Usually I can find some element of a production that I feel needs improvement, but a day after seeing it, I'm still reeling from New Ground's interpretation of 'night Mother in their wonderfully accommodating space in the Village Theatre. This was one of the most impactful shows I've seen all year, and I wouldn't have changed a thing.
For tickets and information, call (563)326-7529 or visit NewGroundTheatre.org.