Everything is black
First, fill wardrobe with black clothes. Then, make a to-do list for the family for when I’m gone. Next, dye hair black. Then, decide who gets what: a watch for Ricky, a calculator for Loretta, a letter for Dawson. Finally, ask Mom where Dad’s revolver is, clean it—and bang.
Brüka Theatre’s two-person play ‘Night Mother, written by Marsha Norman (she got a Pulitzer for it) and directed by La Ronda Etheridge, gives a formula for the steps leading up to suicide. It’s as if the playwright sat down with a “warning signs of suicide” list and incorporated as many tendencies as possible into her piece: loss of appetite, withdrawal, dramatic changes in appearance, talk about death, guilt, hopelessness, shortened attention span, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, self-criticism. It feels more like the type of educational play reserved for high-school audiences.
The black clothing and hair worn by the suicidal Jessie (Jamie Plunkett) is what really pushes ‘Night Mother into the realm of after-school special. There’s no question that Etheridge is striving for something far from subtle. This club-audiences-over-the-head-with-suicide theme is mirrored in the performances of Plunkett and Stacey Spain (playing Jessie’s “Mama,” Thelma), who deliver formulaic performances.
For people who don’t like it when friends or strangers ruin the endings of movies, ‘Night Mother may be irksome. The play gives away its own middle and ending in the first five minutes. Jessie tells Mama that she is going to kill herself in about an hour and a half (the run-time of the play—there is no intermission), and she indicates that she wants the time leading up to her death to involve mother-daughter discussions, answer-and-question sessions and some dual self-revelation. There are no surprises in this play. We never believe the generally emotionless Jessie won’t kill herself, and we know that her mother’s whining and pleading won’t make any difference in Jessie’s decision. ‘Night Mother is a play about two selfish people who really have no interest in—or are perhaps utterly incapable of—relating to one another’s point of view; this makes it hard for audiences to sympathize with or care about either character.
Both Spain and Plunkett, however, do have moments of brilliance, instances where their talent shines through sterile direction. In a moment where Thelma sits on her living room couch, having fatigued herself from begging with her daughter, Spain gets an almost serene look on her face and looks wide-eyed toward the ceiling, a very subtle hint that she is perhaps offering a half-second silent prayer to God. Spain should have been encouraged to have more of these pious moments, to infuse a little more stillness and contemplativeness into her role, instead of simply teeter-tottering back and forth between sobs and exhaustion.
Plunkett is very adept at adding natural and idiosyncratic touches to her characters’ mannerisms and movements. She gives Jessie ticks and habits that take her performance a step beyond the average suicidal introvert. The way she tapped and rolled out her cigarette in one brief moment was indicative of the overall thought Plunkett seemed to put into her role. Lots of thought was clearly also put into set design. There were nice touches like candy wrappers, tissues, socks, stacks of newspaper. The attention to detail adds sincerity that other aspects of the play generally lack.
It’s clear that Etheridge, Plunkett and Spain put lots of thought, maybe too much thought, into ‘Night Mother; they went to great lengths to portray suicide as classically as possible. The play, however, might have worked better if more effort was put into thinking outside the box. The last thing a suicidal person would probably want is to be portrayed as a stereotype.