The scene is a model American home, with wood-finish kitchen cabinets and a self-polishing vinyl floor. Two women live here, the mother getting old, the daughter not that young. One night the daughter casually announces: “I’m going to kill myself, Mama.” “Very funny,” says the mother.
That’s the setup for Marsha Norman’s “ ‘night, Mother” at the Mark Taper Forum, a play that--like its heroine--knows its own mind. Suicide is a subject that most of us would prefer to look away from, but Norman engages it as boldly as a lion tamer going into the cage, and we’re held. How far will she dare to go?
In terms of the situation, she goes all the way. It still comes as a shock at the Taper, even though “ ‘night, Mother” has been around for three years now. Here, Norman challenges both our expectation that a play written with such warmth and humor will end fortunately, and our belief that a dramatic situation must have somewhere to “go.” This play goes exactly where it threatens to go, and that took nerve.
In terms of what happens over the evening between Mama and Jessie--Anne Pitoniak and Kathy Bates repeating their original roles, again under the direction of Tom Moore--Norman does not, perhaps, go all the way.
She goes farther than you might think. Jessie, who has a certain regard for sentimentality, wants this to be one last nice evening at home. She will do Mama’s nails and ask Mama to make her a cup of cocoa, as when she was a little girl. Then she will say “ ‘night, Mother,” and close the door.
But it doesn’t happen that way. Once Mama realizes that Jessie means it about the gun, she gets all upset, and Jessie has to keep her from using the phone. Mama also throws the manicure stuff all over the floor in a tantrum. (Mama’s mind may be starting to go.) And it turns out that neither of them ever did like cocoa. They just pretended to.
They also fight. Jessie defends her right to kill herself simply because her life no longer gives her pleasure. She’s epileptic and she’s had a bad marriage, and it is simply time to “get off the bus.”
Mama won’t hear of it. She tries all the tricks she can remember as a parent to bring her daughter to her right mind--coaxing, bullying, scorn. (The last not totally a trick: Mama wouldn’t kill herself if St. Peter told her to.) But she’s too old to maintain or even to remember a strategy for long. The stolid Jessie takes each round.
But each round also draws them closer together. After all these years, they are really talking--not just the usual chitchat about the neighbors. For instance, they clear up some important old business about Daddy, such as what he said to Mama on his deathbed. (Nothing: which was just like him.)
In a sense, then, “ ‘night, Mother” does have a comfortable ending. It is about a mother and a daughter who finally got to know one another--who finally learned to communicate. All this is excellent, yet the play leaves you wishing it had taken one more step and fully examined Jessie’s anger towards her mother, evident in her decision to end her own life with her mother as an unwilling witness.
Jessie explains this in terms of love and concern, and it’s true that she never faces Mama with a bill of particulars as to her failings as a parent. She even assures her that her suicide has “nothing to do with you.”
But Mama is right not to buy it. There’s an element of spite in Jessie’s action, a need to punish her mother for bringing her into the world, and the play never quite gets down to dealing with it. Had it done so, it might have been too painful to watch--let alone write. Or it might have catapulted “ ‘night, Mother” into being a modern masterpiece.
As it is it’s a first-rate psychological melodrama, as cleanly written as an arrow and beautifully produced at the Taper. Bates and Pitoniak haven’t wearied in the roles. They’ve gone deeper into them, finding constant touches that say “This is life” rather than “This is theater.”
How beautifully Pitoniak conveys the wavering state of an old woman’s soul--the spirit is there, but Mama simply can’t handle this kind of thing any more. (We imagine more than one set-to with the stubborn Jessie in the past.)
For her part, Bates conveys the exhilaration that Jessie feels in finally taking her life into her own hands, if only to end it. She will leave Mama a clean house too. “ ‘night, Mother” is observant about the small things (in Richard Seger’s setting and Heidi Landesman’s re-creation of Ann Bruice’s costumes as well.) Suicide happens to people who take out the garbage.
“ ‘Night, Mother” plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m. Sundays, and at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through May 11. (213) 410-1062.