'Night, Mother asks 'Whose death is it anyway?' | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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'Night, Mother asks 'Whose death is it anyway?'

Invictus's streaming production brings new angles to Marsha Norman's real-time drama.

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Embarrassing Theater Critic Admission: I've never seen Marsha Norman's 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, 'Night, Mother, onstage. And technically, I still haven't. But at least I can now say that I've seen it, thanks to Invictus Theatre's current livestreaming production.

That's an appropriate approach for this play, which itself unfolds in one act, in real time. Daughter Jessie and mother Thelma prepare for what seems to be a normal dull-as-dishwater Saturday night that quickly turns into something much darker when Jessie announces her intention to kill herself. Within a couple of hours. With her late father's gun. With her mother in the house. 

When I read the play back in the 1980s, I was both impressed and annoyed by Norman's adroit ability to manipulate our emotional investment in these characters. In those pre-Kevorkian days, a play that unabashedly made the argument that suicide was a personal choice, and perhaps the most logical after a lifetime of pain and disappointment, certainly caused a stir. Brian Clark's Whose Life Is It Anyway?—which started out as a 1972 television movie, became a 1978 stage play, and then another film in 1981 (starring Richard Dreyfuss)—first gained attention for its frank discussion of assisted suicide. But Clark's protagonist is a sculptor who has become quadriplegic following a car accident. (Whose Life Is It Anyway? was later followed by Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside, which also presented narratives of disabled adults requesting euthanasia—a cinematic trend which received blowblack from disability rights organizations such as Chicago-based Not Dead Yet.) 

By contrast, Jessie's reasons for wanting to end her life aren't predicated on a sudden accident that has altered the trajectory of her life in a profound way. She's been epileptic since childhood. She's also severely depressed, divorced, and the mother of a son whose various addictions have led him to start stealing from Jessie and others.

Norman's play carries within its DNA a trap for actors, especially for whoever plays Jessie. If she's too downbeat and defeated from the start, then there presumably isn't much of a trajectory for her to explore in the 90-some minutes before the inevitable. (Spoiler alert: she kills herself.) At the same time, whoever plays Thelma has to negotiate the balance between a chatty woman, seemingly content with the quotidian side of life, and a woman who is slowly being tortured by the revelations of her only daughter.

As someone who has had her own flirtations (and then some) with self-destructive tendencies in the past, this play can be a tough watch (which is perhaps one reason I've never even seen the 1986 film, starring Anne Bancroft as Thelma and Sissy Spacek as Jessie). It's hard to get past the sense of cruelty in Jessie's actions, even as she presents herself as helping Thelma make the transition to living on her own by going through her checklist of things to know (where the washing machine repair number is, what goes in the junk drawer in the kitchen). 

The justifications for Jessie's desire to end it all can make sense. Making her mother bear witness to the final hours feels vindictive. Especially since Thelma, while perhaps not Mother of the Year material, isn't abusive or a monster. And she's obviously had her own sorrows to bear, including a loveless marriage to the father that Jessie still idolizes.

In Diane Sintich's Invictus production, the chasm between Courtney Gardner's Jessie and Keisha Yelton-Hunter's Thelma is literal. So while the show unfolds in real time, ticking down the last minutes of Jessie's disappointing life (not even finding a medication regime that keeps her epilepsy under control gives her enough of a reason to carry on), there is also a great sense of displacement in time and place between these two women. We see them together, but in a split screen from the actors' different homes. A door (representing the room where Jessie will go to do the final deed) and a curtain pop up at various times, suggesting the ebb and flow of their connection. Close, but not close enough to actually reach and touch each other. Certainly not enough to change Jessie's mind.

Gardner finds a low-key matter-of-factness to Jessie that fits with a woman who has already made her peace and who is now trying to make it right by preparing her mother. For her part, Yelton-Hunter excels at building Thelma's growing sense of disbelief ("We're just going to sit around like every other night and then you're going to kill yourself?") to a vague grasp of just how empty and anguished Jessie's own life has been—something she's missed even as it's unfolded right in front of her. "You are my child!"," she cries out at one point. "No," replies Gardner's Jessie with unnerving directness. "I am what became of your child." 

How much do we belong to ourselves and how much do we belong to those who love us? After months of most of us being separated from loved ones by a deadly pandemic, that question carries extra weight. But also: knowing how hard life can be at the best of times, what right do any of us have to deliberately force a loved one to, in essence, sign a permission slip for our premature demise?

The fact that these roles are played by Black women also adds an extra layer to the narrative power of the Invictus production. The death by suicide of This Is Us writer Jas Waters this past summer opened some public discussions about suicide among Black women. While according to the CDC, Black women have the lowest rate of suicide in the U.S., they also have more chronic anxiety, with more intense symptoms, than their white counterparts. The ongoing toll of living with systemic racism and misogyny cannot be discounted. 

None of this is overtly present in Norman's script, which featured white actors (Anne Pitoniak as Thelma and Kathy Bates as Jessie) in its Broadway premiere. But this production shows us how the meaning of a script can change by changing the representation of the characters. 

I'm still not sure how I feel about the central premise of Norman's story. Particularly in recent years and months, I can easily accept the paradox that life itself feels more fragile and precious, and yet also more cruel and less worth fighting for. Particularly, if, like Jessie, the reward of staying alive is just facing another day of mind-numbing routine and dread for even worse news down the road.

What I am sure about is that Sintich's production features two fearless and layered performances. That Gardner and Yelton-Hunter make these connections in the virtual realm, without being able to actually touch and react to each other in person, is even more impressive.  'Night, Mother isn't easy to watch. But it finds new layers of urgency and staying power with Invictus.  v

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