Suicide stories present opportunities, as well as serious challenges. In Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother, a strange, dark tragicomedy, an adult daughter living with her mother announces she's decided to shoot herself before the end of an otherwise ordinary Saturday night.
The characters' motivation and the ***image1***outcome provide the opportunity to create suspense and tension. But the challenge is to avoid resolutions that are facile and sentimental.
Ironweed Productions' version stands as an object lesson in how to embrace such opportunities and challenges with courage, wisdom and great care.
Norman's script also poses performance-oriented challenges, including a 90-minute run time on the same set with the same two characters. It's tempting when the play begins (perhaps because there's a clock visible on the wall) to wonder about the wisdom of spending the next hour and a half in this particular living room. The clock is a curious touch, as it enables the audience to keep track of exactly how much time has gone by, in itself not always wise.
But what takes hold early in the performance is a sense of trust created by the well-honed and entirely engaging performances by both Lois Viscoli (Mama) and Mona Malec (Jessie). Part of this trust is formed by the assured physical and verbal interaction of the two, who establish the illusion of a real mother/daughter bond with all of its cathected and enmeshed layers.
Scott Harrison's direction provides many opportunities for Malec and Viscoli to go far beyond the mechanics of blocking and lines. The audience knows early on that Jessie's intention is to shoot herself, and this production handles the ensuing scenes with an eye to the arc of the rest of the evening. Each scene feels both absurd and inevitable: oddly charming, funny and surprising while at the same time horrifying and laden with grief and loss. Ultimately, both characters are sympathetic and stand with unexpected forgiveness and clarity. The production manages this without resorting to mawkishness or melodrama.
Assumptions and values about suicide in particular and life in general are tested by Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning script. The audience immediately gets hooked by whether or not Jessie's suicide will be prevented. But, as the play unfolds, there are also moments when Jessie's intentions are forgotten altogether.
Malec's performance contains interesting choices, including a focus on Jessie as completely settled, decided and unemotional about her decision. Jessie accesses her own anger, outrage, loss and ***image2***forgiveness not as a result of her decision to shoot herself, but from announcing her decision to her mother. Norman's script suggests many possible "reasons" why Jessie plans to die, but never attaches to any single reason or even a constellation of causes.
Much of Mama's behavior is an attempt to figure out why Jessie has decided to shoot herself, and much of the dark humor of the play (which did not seem at all appreciated by the audience) results from this attempt.
Viscoli as Mama is outstanding. Her portrayal could easily have landed too heavily on either the "addlepated nutjob" or "evil mother" side of things, but Viscoli thoroughly mines the great opportunities for both humor and compassion in Norman's script. Viscoli and Malec together craft a heartfelt story woven with unexpected gallows humor and the catharsis of grief for the audience.
Ultimately, 'night, Mother isn't about suicide at all, but love. Ironweed's extraordinary accomplishment is in not only understanding this, but delivering on it.