Suicide is not an easy topic for discussion even though it is the fifth most common cause of death in the United States out-numbering drug abuse and firearm homicide. You would be hard pressed to find many in America who have not been touched in some way by the premature passing of a loved-one, friend or relative. This is not exactly the type of material that you would expect to pay money to see at a theater, and yet here it is.
“’night Mother”, is now playing in the Studio Theater at the Beck Center for the Arts. The play was written by Marsha Norman and is directed by Scott Plate and stars Dorothy Silver as Thelma Cates (also known as “mama”) and Laura Perrotta as Jessie Cates. The play originally debut on Broadway in 1983 winning that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as being nominated for four Tony Awards.
The playwright Marsha Norman has had a long and grand career in the theater. She wrote the book and lyrics for such Broadway musicals as The Red Shoes and The Secret Garden (that garnered a Tony Award and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book of a Musical). She wrote the libretto for the musical The Color Purple and the book for the musical The Bridges of Madison County. She is co-chair of the playwriting department at The Juilliard School.
In ‘night Mother, Jessie has decided that she is at the end of her road. Her father (the only person she could really talk with) is dead. She is an epileptic who has had seizures on a regular basis all her life. She is a divorced with a petty thief son who she has no idea where he is, she has failed at every job she was hired for and is condemned to spend the rest of her life as her mother’s care giver in an isolated house in the country.
Thelma has spent a life of servitude married to a man unable to express love or devotion and raising a daughter who was “severely flawed”. She can only look forward to a few years of quietly waiting for death to claim her. In short, neither of these women have ever felt any kind of fulfillment in their lives and death seems to be the only option. It is simply a matter of time for both of them.
The play begins with Jessie seeking and finding her father’s service revolver and when pressed by her mother calmly admits that within the next few hours she plans to kill herself. At first, Thelma thinks that the idea is absurd and that Jessie is simply joking, but as her daughter spends the evening setting everything in the house “right” and making lists of things that will need to be done once “she is gone”, it begins to dawn on Thelma that Jessie is indeed serious.
Over the course of the next ninety minutes, Jessie goes into great detail as to why she has made this decision and what circumstances drove her to it. In spite of her mother’s desperate pleading Jessie makes good on her promise in one last dramatic and deeply disturbing moment.
As for the Beck Center’s production, as shocking as this subject matter is and as ramped up the drama it is a performance of the highest quality. Laura Perrotta plays Jessie as a woman who has made up her mind and is beyond emotion. She has set her course and nothing will deter her from it. Dorothy Silver begins calm and disbelieving but as her pleas continually become unanswered grows more and more desperate.
I must also make special mention of the set designed by Aaron Benson. The Beck Center has spared no expense in making the stage truly memorable. On the left is a full kitchen complete with refrigerator, stove, sink, telephone, countertops, cabinets, breakfast bar and drawers (there is even running water in the sink). Down Stage is a table with two chairs. To the right of the kitchen is a living room with sofa, easy chair, end tables and a TV on a small stand. Behind the living room is a hallway with Jessie’s bedroom door. There is also a small desk/curio cabinet to the right of the hallway entrance. Scattered around the room are various candy dishes that play a part in the play.
Goofs and Beefs: I could only spot two problems with the opening night production. The first was seeing Jessie take out her father’s 45 and cleaning it only to have the sound of the shot being a starter pistol (a blank gun fired into an empty 55 gallon metal drum would have been much more effective). Secondly, the wall on both sides of Jessie’s bedroom door flexed quite a bit during the climatic finish as her mother was beating on the door.
Prude Alert: This is a highly dramatic and disturbing play about suicide. Even though there are touches of light humor throughout (even near the end, Thelma poo-poos the idea of living with a certain couple when Jessie is gone “because they drink Sanka”). If highly charged subject matter tends to upset you, I would avoid seeing this one.
Shooting From The Lip (My Last Words): For those looking for high drama and are not squeamish about a frank portrayal of suicide this will be a good show for you to see. It is superbly acted, humorous at times and the high drama carries clear to the fade-out, but be forewarned…it is a shocker even when you know the ending. After the show, head across the street to "The Sweet Spot" for a little nerve soothing gelato. You will need it.
‘night, Mother stars the grand dame of Cleveland theater Dorothy Silver as Thelma with Laura Perrotta taking on the role of Jessie. Perrotta returns to Beck Center after being named “Best Actress in a Non-Musical” in 2012 by the Cleveland Critics Circle for her role as the cunning Hollywood agent Diane in The Little Dog Laughed. Perrotta appears courtesy of the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), the union of actors and stage managers.
‘night Mother will be playing through May 4, 2014 at the Beck Center for the Arts located at 17801 Detroit Avenue in Lakewood. Show times are 8:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3:00 p.m. Sunday. The show is performed in the Studio Theater.
No performances April 18-20, 2014
Tickets for ‘night, Mother are $29 for adults, $26 for seniors (65 and older), and $12 for students (with valid ID). An additional $3 service fee per ticket is applied at the time of purchase. Group discounts are available for parties of 13 or more.
Purchase tickets online at beckcenter.org or call Customer Service at (216) 521-2540 x10. Beck Center is located at 17801 Detroit Avenue in Lakewood, just ten minutes west of downtown Cleveland. Free onsite parking is available.