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“‘night MOTHER”–Pulitzer Prize script and masterful acting at Beck

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

One of the most common questions I encountered as a counselor when working with someone who had just experienced the suicide of a family member or acquaintance was “Why did s/he do it?”  Or, in confronting someone who was suicidal, the question is, “Why do you want to do that?” Ironically, most of the time there is no thoughtful answer.

A humanistic psychology theory about suicide is that the person has come to the place in their life in which their basic human needs are not being met.  They no longer feel the need to survive.  Their life, from their perspective, is not filled with happiness.  They feel insecure because of mental anguish due to physical or psychological long or short-term illness.  They often feel that they have no way to control their own lives or the environment in which they exist.

The important concept of that theory is the idea that suicide is almost always an emotional (feeling), not a logical (thinking) act.  It is also based on personal perception.  It often doesn’t make sense to the survivors.  They, of course, are looking at the act from their perspective and in a logical manner. No, no matter how hard we try, we cannot feel the pain or anguish of someone else.

“‘night, Mother,” Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, which is now in production at Beck Center for the Arts, is a play about two people in varying states of life’s pain.  The approach of one, Jessie, the daughter, is to realize that her life, which is filled with depression, agoraphobia, seizures and isolation, is not going to get any better.  She concludes, in her emotionally controlled way, that her life is not worth living.

Her mother, Thelma, has lived a life with an emotionally distant husband who seldom spoke to her and hid from personal contact, has unproductive and disappointing people in her life, and has chosen to ignore that which surrounds her.  She is dutifully going through the act of living.

At the start of the play, we meet Jessie, cleaning her father’s pistol, putting bullets in it, and announcing calmly to her mother, that shortly, she is going into her room to shot herself.  Before she does so, she gets the household life in order.  She has already made arrangements for groceries to be delivered to their rural dwelling, thoroughly cleaned the house, filled the candy dishes, packed up presents for her relatives, and taken care of the day-to-day household activities. Jessie is ready.

The duo spends their evening drinking hot cocoa, planning for Thelma’s weekly manicure, and talking about neighbors and relatives.  There is such a calm attitude that it is almost astounding to believe that within a short period of time, Jessie is going to end her life.  Or, is she?

The audience may well be thrown off by the fact that there is no high drama, just an almost enveloping sense of the inevitable.  This is a tribute to both Norman’s superb writing, and the masterful performances of both Dorothy Silver and Laura Perrotta.   Their performances are a master class in acting.  They clearly illustrate, with the aid of Scott Plate’s spot on directing, that high drama does not need screaming, shouting, and out-of-control projection.   The audience is swept to the conclusion by their underplay and the calmness of the script.  The power of the emotion is the power of words and controlled actions.

One might ask, “Why doesn’t a mother, knowing that her daughter is about to commit suicide, hide the gun, call the police, intercede in some way?.”  That questions shows a lack of understanding of depression, of living in a world of denial and thinking that logic prevails.  Mental health people are aware that all things being equal, emotions override logic.  These women are both, in their own ways, victims of lives of frustration and defeat.

Cast members of the play’s award winning Broadway production included Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak.  The 1986 film starred Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft.  A 2004 revival showcased Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn.   As great as those performances were, Silver and Perrotta are their equals.  (BTW…a 2015 projected Great White Way rival is going to star Oprah Winfrey and Audra McDonald.)

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s “’night Mother ”is one of the finest evenings of theatre one can experience.  The script, the acting, the directing are all of the highest quality. It is not an escapist experience, but is an opportunity to look at an on-going issue of our culture and gain an understanding of how the lack of fulfillment of our basic needs has an effect on life decisions.  It’s not for escapists, but for realists. This is an absolutely, must see for anyone who wants to participate in an all embracing theatrical experience. 

“’night Mother” is scheduled to run through May 4, 2014 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to