Suicidal depression is easy to overact. The temptation for an actor is to make clarifying gestures when the character's impulse isn't to explain but to withdraw.
Sylva Kelegian's performance as Jessie Cates, the woman intent on killing herself in Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "'night, Mother," doesn't fall into any of the clichéd traps. She treats Jessie's sadness as a physical fact, as much a part of her identity as her hair color or accent.
Early in this 90-minute drama, Jessie calmly reveals to her mother, Thelma Cates (Lisa Richards), that by the end of the evening she is going to lock her bedroom door and shoot herself. She wants them to have a pleasant last night together while she does her mother's nails, replenishes the candy jars and organizes the junk drawer.
Unable to physically stop her, Thelma uses the time that's been allotted to her to understand her daughter's choice and to try to prevent it. Like a modern version of a classical tragedy, the play takes place in real time, with a kitchen clock counting the minutes to the fateful moment when Jessie utters her final "'night, Mother."
Kelegian's dead-eyed determination ("I'm just not having a very good time, and I don't have any reason to think it'll get anything but worse") is the reason to see this revival of Norman's play, which originally starred Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak and was later turned into a film with Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft. (Plans for a future Broadway revival with Audra McDonald and Oprah Winfrey have had the rialto buzzing.)
The pressure cooker Norman has contrived is gripping, but there's too much theatrical business about marshmallows, caramel apples and garbage bag ties. Director Aliah Whitmore doesn't always manage to neutralize the domestic staginess in this Whitmore Eclectic and Ellen Gerstein production at the Lost Studio. Richards makes believable the helplessness of Thelma's predicament, but her performance occasionally devolves into country caricature, and her shifting relationship to her daughter's decision isn't completely worked out.
Kelegian's portrayal is all the more wrenching for its refusal to ask for sympathy. Jessie sees suicide as an existential act of freedom; we experience it as tragedy.