On a night like all the others, Mama (Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson) roots around in the kitchen cabinets for her drug of choice – candy, finding one last Twinkie Snowball. She calls to daughter Jessie (Yolanda Franklin) to put them on the list, along with Hershey bars and peanut brittle.
When Jessie enters, one of the first things she asks is, “Where’s daddy’s gun?” She claims to want it for “protection,” but soon admits that “I’m going to kill myself tonight.”
Just like that, playwright Marsha Norman sets up an emotionally excruciating but dramatically riveting meditation on love, suicide, loneliness and courage in her Pulitzer Prize-winning “’night, Mother,” playing through Feb. 7 at ion theatre in Hillcrest.
Jessie, in her late 30s, has a chronic disease that “won’t kill me,” but has prevented her from pursuing some jobs. Her life has run aground after a divorce and the incarceration of son Ricky, and she has spent some years living with and caring for Mama Thelma, whose own life centers around candy, TV, crochet work, her empty-headed friend Agnes (who won’t enter the house for fear of catching Jessie’s epilepsy) and Jessie’s brother Dawson and wife Loretta. Communication is sparse at best, and not at all self-revelatory.
Jessie busies herself with last-minute plans for this event that’s been a decade in the planning. She’s ordered food, boxed up her stuff, set up future milk and food deliveries, and as she calmly cleans daddy’s gun, she goes through the list of things she needs to tell Mama – like where the cleaning supplies are stored and how to use the washing machine.
But mostly, what Franklin’s Jessie shows is calm, a stillness that puzzles and frightens her mother, who tries to get the reason out of her so she can “fix” it.
Jessie’s never been much of a talker, yet there’s something about a final goodbye that invites, even demands communication. Finally, this night, Mama and Jessie lay bare the disappointments, shattered dreams and dashed hopes of two lifetimes while Mama runs through the five stages of grief and tries to come up with some argument that will change Jessie’s mind.
But ultimately, Jessie explains her reason: “I’m just not having a very good time and I don’t have any reason to think it’ll get anything but worse.”
Thompson, one of the best actors anywhere, shows her own quietness, but hers is that of incomprehension and hopelessness at the knowledge that she cannot change the course of events.
The way these two consummate actors play off each other – and director Glenn Paris’ sensitive direction – make this heartbreaking play a must-see.
Kudos also to the fine tech team: Paris and Claudio Raygoza’s set design, Karin Filijan’s lighting design and Evan Kendig’s sound design.
“’night, Mother” plays through Feb. 7 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX, 3704 Sixth Ave. in Hillcrest in San Diego, California.
Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.
Tickets: (619) 600-5020 or HERE.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.