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Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn
in 'night, Mother
(Photo© Joan Marcus)
As she calmly and methodically cleans her father's gun, Jessie Cates matter-of-factly informs her mother Thelma that she is going to kill herself later that evening. Marsha Norman's 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning play, 'night, Mother, focuses on the compelling drama between these two women on the final night of Jessie's life. The heightened stakes of Jessie's impending suicide enable the characters to talk as they never have before, unveiling long kept secrets and complicated feelings. The current Broadway revival, featuring Edie Falco as Jessie and Brenda Blethyn as Thelma, demonstrates the play's power but is not completely satisfying.

Jessie suffers from both epilepsy and depression. Her medication has stopped the fits associated with her physical illness but has not improved her state of mind. Although the Playbill lists the time as "tonight," and there are no obvious clues in the décor to set the play in a certain year, there are nevertheless certain elements within the work that mark it as something of a period piece. Norman wrote 'night, Mother in the early 1980s, before the advent of a number of anti-depressants -- for example, Prozac, which didn't come onto the market until 1987. If such drugs had been available to Jessie, she may not have arrived at the decision to kill herself. Of course, then we wouldn't have this excellent play, which contains moments of genuine warmth and humor despite its dark subject matter.

Blethyn is sensational, taking the audience on the roller coaster ride of Thelma's emotions. As the character undergoes all of the stages of grief that psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross outlined -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance -- Blethyn demonstrates a wide variety of expression that is always emotionally grounded without ever becoming melodramatic. She can prattle on incessantly to cover up confusion or sharpen her tone of voice to lay guilt trips on Jessie, and when she finally lets loose with a nearly primal scream of rage and denial, it's absolutely terrifying.

Although Falco captures Jessie's depression, she does not go the extra mile to consistently make her character theatrically engaging. Too much of the time, her delivery has a listless quality that is effective in certain moments but not for the production as a whole. The role is a difficult challenge, as Falco needs to demonstrate that Jessie is chronically depressed yet must find enough variety within the character's limited range of expressiveness to hold the audience's interest. In a crucial monologue, late in the play, Jessie describes how she found an old baby picture of herself and was struck by the difference between the possibilities that baby had and the reality of who she became. Falco delivers the entire speech in a flat monotone that simply does not capture its emotional complexities.

Still, there's a comfortable rhythm between the actors that is indicative of the characters' relationship. As directed by Michael Mayer, Thelma and Jessie often avoid looking each other in the eye, underscoring the fact that their different perspectives are irreconcilable; as a result, the rare moments when they do make eye contact are poignant and meaningful. Mayer, working from the playwright's cues, keeps the actors occupied with mundane activities in the midst of some of their most intense personal and philosophical discussions. For example, as Jessie refills jars of candy, Thelma takes them and puts them away as if this has always been part of their regular routine. Yet the matter that they're discussing -- Jessie's impending suicide -- could not be further removed from the norm.

Neil Patel's naturalistic set is the perfect backdrop for the stage action; the designer renders this environment with a fine attention to detail, including a working stovetop and kitchen sink. The play takes place entirely in the Cates's living room and kitchen, and the set has a very lived-in feel. It is neither excessively tacky nor particularly tasteful; rather it depicts a comfortable, middle-class household. Michael Krass's costumes and Paul Huntley's wig designs do a remarkable job of making the show's two stars -- who both have a certain glamour in real life -- look rather plain and ordinary. Brian MacDevitt's lighting and Dan Moses Schreier's sound design are also fine.

Despite all of the things that work well in this 'night, Mother, Falco's performance prevents the production from achieving the devastating emotional impact that the play should have. The full effect of this two-hander depends upon our being able to see both characters' perspectives. By the play's end, the audience should understand Jessie's plight and have great sympathy and compassion for her; unfortunately I found myself with very little of those feelings even as my heart went out to Blethyn's Thelma.

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