At the very beginning of the 90-minute conversation that comprises Marsha Norman’s “‘night, Mother,” Jessie (Julie Whitesell ’05) announces to her elderly mother (Laura Gary ’05) that she plans to kill herself that night. The audience is just as surprised as Jessie’s mother is — especially because Jessie continues to bustle around the house just as busily as before, folding laundry and preparing her mother for her weekly manicure.
And so begins possibly the eeriest hour and a half discussion the audience has ever watched on stage, in which a nonchalant middle-aged woman convinces her increasingly frantic mother that she will be dead by the end of the night.
We find this all particularly hard to digest because Jessie remains so calm and rational throughout. She spends half the conversation, in fact, reading off lists dictating how her mother is to run her life after she is gone: where the light bulbs are kept, how to order groceries to be delivered, when to take out the trash. Jessie has even, we find out, made a list to be handed on to her brother, detailing the Christmas and birthday presents he should buy for their mother over the next 20 years. “Next year,” Jessie tells her mother with a smile, “you’re just getting stuff for the house. But the year after that you’re getting something really special.”
The rest of the conversation is a broken exploration of why Jessie has determined to kill herself, and we get her life story in bits and pieces. She has been an epileptic since childhood and hasn’t been able to hold down a job; her husband has left her; her only son is a criminal and drug addict; she lives with her mother and spends all of her time tending to her needs and rarely leaving the house. All, it is true, are real reasons to be miserable — and yet she seems less depressed and suicidal than she is calm, calculating and quietly determined to shoot herself. Her composure and her conviction to prepare her mother fully for her suicide make the play less truly sad than it is truly creepy.
Whitesell’s nonchalance as Jessie, unfortunately, seems to be more a result of underacting than it is of nuanced skill — we wish she would do a little bit more with her character. Gary pulls off Mama well; she is old, confused, and frazzled, and her high-pitched Southern drawl, though unpleasant to listen to, especially once she reaches a frenzy, is natural. In the end, the play probably should have been shorter than it is; for the last half hour or so, all of the arguing about Jessie’s planned suicide and the constant reversions to discussion of mundane household details seem superfluous, stuff we’ve already seen before. Perhaps, indeed, Jessie should have gotten it over with more quickly — it could have made a better show. But nonetheless the play has powerful effects — we leave the theater not depressed or deeply upset, but very, very disconcerted.