You don’t go to see a production of Marsha Norman’s tragic two-hander, ‘night, Mother, so much for the storyline as to see two fine actresses play off each other in entirely nuanced fashion. And, that’s what you get with ion Theatre’s production at BLKBOX, through February 7.
Jessie Cates (Yolanda Franklin) shocks her mother, Thelma Cates (Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson), by announcing that she intends to commit suicide before the evening is out. One would think that someone on the verge of suicide would either be depressed or be dealing with end-stage illness, but Jessie is neither of those.
True, she does have a disease that keeps her from being able to make a living, but that disease is chronic, not life-threatening. True, too, Jessie’s had a lot of disappointments in her life. But, she tells Thelma, she’s waited until her disease was in a period of relative remission and for a time when she feeling positive about herself before implementing her plan.
Thelma, too, has experienced more than her share of disappointments, but not only does she feel a need to dissuade Jessie, she also knows that she’s dependent on her to a substantial degree.
From the moment of the announcement, an unraveling of Jessie’s life, Thelma’s life, and their life together begins. Jessie has a head start, as she’s done much more thinking on her situation than has Thelma. But, once the reality of her announcement hits her, Jessie is forced to think more deeply about what has prompted her decision.
One of ion’s strengths as a company is that its directors and actors work hand in hand to find what is driving the action from moment to moment and then use that energy to play each of those moments in a manner that builds the tension and audience anticipation. In this case, the director is Glenn Paris, and he fulfills these goals in first-rate fashion.
The individual performers also bring their own interpretations to the characters. Ms. Franklin’s Jessie knows that she has to be strong and resolute to overcome any arguments her mother will put forward. She’s built defenses by planning a set of activities that when completed will allow her to take her own life knowing that her mother will be provided for, at least for a while, and that Thelma will know what to do next.
Ms. Franklin’s version of resolute is to be quiet or soft-spoken, but you see her give herself away with activity (organizing Thelma’s pills and the foods she likes to eat).
Ms. Thompson, on the other hand, has a catalog of behaviors to use. Her neatest trick is to act as though she is heading toward a stereotypical portrayal of motherhood, one that was satirized by George C. Wolfe in his wickedly titled sketch, ”The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play.” With Ms. Thompson, though, that type is a dodge; at the moment the stereotype is about to lock in, she adds one fresh element, and the audience has to start working again to stay up with her.
The 49 seat BLKBOX theatre has audience seating configured in an L-shape, and so the stage setting completes the box. The company has learned to work well in this space, though it does favor single-unit scenic designs. Company members have done their usual fine jobs, with Mr. Paris and Claudio Raygoza on scenic design, Karin Filijan on lighting design, Evan Kendig on sound design, and Dino Grulli for designing the many properties in use throughout the play.
‘night, Mother runs 90 minutes with no intermission, and each of those moment is one to savor.