Review | Night, Mother: essential, actor-driven theater

Dark and Stormy Productions, performing at the Grain Belt Warehouse through September 8th

Sally Wingert and Sara Marsh in NIGHT, MOTHER. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Rarely does the need arise to talk someone off a cliff. In popular art, when this situation is dramatized, exceptional people often find the perfect words to provide hope.  Marsha Norman‘s stunning play Night, Mother rejects this contrivance and shows us that relationships are marked by imperfection. Even if the desire to help a loved one is intense, most proffered words do not resonate for those who need them most. This unhappy reality drives the absorbing, essential Night, Mother in its exploration of its difficult themes with empathy and insight.

The setup is harrowing – Thelma (Sally Wingert) is an adamantly simple country woman living alone with her grown, divorced daughter Jessie (Sara Marsh). When Jessie reveals she has long suffered from depression and plans to commit suicide, Thelma attempts to provide her with meaning and convince her to change course. Over 90 minutes of real-time conversation, grievances are aired, memories are shared, and each woman opens up in new ways.

Dark and Stormy’s current production (running through September 9th at the Grain Belt Warehouse) ably elevates this material by staging it in a simple, intimate space and allowing its excellent performers room to explore their respective parts. The audience sits mere feet from the action, fully immersed in the exchange. Director Hayley Finn has wisely chosen to allow attention to be paid to her performers above all and keeps the blocking simple, the sound ambient, and the lighting static.

Marsh, also the company’s artistic director, finds emotional resonance in Jessie as she speaks of the trauma and disappointment she has experienced, serving as the resolute anchor of the show. Wingert plays off her befuddling serenity with a multifaceted turn ranging from humble reflection to raw desperation. Her work here is as good as she has ever been and reinforces her ability to lose herself in distinct characterization. Though her character is far from perfect, she lends the part sincerity, and it proves impossible not to identify with her struggle.

The only critique that could be levied against the show is that these performances are occasionally hidden from view due to the thrust/in the round arrangement. Also, the set consists of a kitchen sink and various living room furnishings suspended in air on occasionally obstructing wires—a design that may be too clever for its intentions. Yet, these elements also work to the show’s advantage by providing a “fly-on-the-wall” feeling fitting the show’s very private and personal dialogue.

Ultimately the devoted, moving work on display makes criticism seem trivial. Though Sara Marsh and Dark and Stormy Productions have only been around since 2012, this shoestring company has all but established itself as a vital purveyor of actor-focused theater. It’s anti-theatrical space tears down barriers between actors and their audience, and their production history is marked by raw human drama. Night, Mother continues this noble project—highly recommended.

1 comment for “Review | Night, Mother: essential, actor-driven theater

  1. Miriam Weinstein
    August 27, 2018 at 7:43 am

    Excellent acting & engaging script however the issue of epilepsy confused the story line. Mental illness & epilepsy are very different conditions.

    It would have been more believable to stick withmental illness which, given the sponsorship of NAMI, I was lead to believe was Jessie’s disease.

    Loved the set & staging.

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