wed 08/12/2021

'Night, Mother, Hampstead Theatre review - despair in sotto-voce | reviews, news & interviews

'Night, Mother, Hampstead Theatre review - despair in sotto-voce

'Night, Mother, Hampstead Theatre review - despair in sotto-voce

Stockard Channing is hurting and hurtful in revival of Marsha Norman's piercing 1983 drama

The tenderness of farewell: Stockard Channing with Rebecca NightImages - Marc Brenner

‘Night, Mother remains a play of piercing pessimism, something that’s not necessarily the same as tragedy, though the two often run congruently. The inexorability of the development of Marsha Norman’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize winner certainly recalls the tragic arc of drama, but its sense of catharsis remains somehow limited.

The cathartic impact for the audience is incremental, and it is absolutely felt in the closing minutes of Roxana Silbert’s production for the Hampstead Theatre‘Night, Mother received its British premiere there back in 1985, and it’s revived now as part of the theatre’s 60th anniversary season – but Norman’s mother-and-daughter two-hander feels strangely one-sided in the impact felt by its protagonists. Given that the play’s subject – the rationalised prelude to planned suicide, however bare such a description sounds – is as painfully exposed as it comes, the feelings it evokes are confusing. How do we experience full empathy for a character who so determinedly denies it to herself?

Such a conscious rationing of grief has dramatic implications, too. Norman limits the possibility of tension when she has daughter Jessie (played here by Rebecca Night) declare her intentions at the very beginning when she tells her mother Thelma (Stockard Channing), “I’m going to kill myself, mama.” What follows for the 80 minutes or so of the play’s run is more exposition of their relationship, and exploration of the past with its secrets and lies, than dramatic development as such. Jessie’s matter-of-fact determination, and her arguably callow intention to work through a list of tasks to make her mother’s life without her easier, makes the despair more than sotto-voce, the tenderness that lies beneath it all painfully muted.      Stockard Channing and Rebecca NightThe playwright defines her territory in opposition to some of her predecessors in American drama: ‘Night, Mother has none of the grand family dynamics of O’Neill, though there’s much working-over of the family past, and none of the histrionics of Tennessee Williams (Norman nevertheless gives both her protagonists late monologues of real poignancy). We might look across other art forms to find an equivalence for these lonely lives whose emotions seem to be defined by the absence: to the pictures of Edward Hopper certainly, or the emphasised isolation of Carson McCullers. More recent prose analogues are surely there in the worlds of Anne Tyler or Elizabeth Strout.

Would it be fanciful to imagine a strange communion across the decades between Channing’s Thelma, simultaneously hurting and hurtful, and Strout’s Olive Kitteridge? The celebrated American actress, back on the London stage now as she approaches the end of her seventh decade, could certainly look to another work of American drama to which she made a distinctive contribution over the years, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, separation being a dominant motif of ‘Night, Mother. In the confusion of her reaction to her daughter’s revelation, Thelma tries all she can to spin stories to divert her daughter, veers through panic and caprice, and becomes possessive even as her practised past disdain for Jessie reveals itself. In vain.

Though there are cries to be heard of varying intensity, '‘Night, Mother' ends not with a bang but with a whimper

Only connect? The gulf in emotional understanding is too wide, between the resolute smalltown stability of the Midwest – it's as much a generically psychological location as any literally geographical one here – that Thelma inhabits and the territories of accumulated desolation that have become Jessie’s world, that space in which the noonday demon stalks. “Why do you have to know so much about things, Jessie?” Thelma asks helplessly (she might as well be talking to Shakespeare’s Jacques, “And your experience makes you sad”). No point in speculating about advances in psychopharmacology between the decade in which Norman wrote her play and now: sunt lacrimae rerum

Absurdity is certainly part of it, with Jessie’s dark humour as striking as her lack of self-pity. “Sad about what?,” she answers, “the way things are… Everything from you and me to Red China”. Norman’s humour is always coruscating, even when its effect is lacerating, as when Thelma recalls the moment of her husband’s death, “It was his last chance not to talk to me and he took full advantage of that.” To Jessie the memories of her dad, a “big old faded man in the chair”, are only tender, as affecting as the Christmas lists for years to come that she has already sketched out for her mother.

Norman has described ‘Night, Mother as a “story of terror”, speculating on what might happen when a character gets to a place where “no one knows me well enough to save me”. From the stories of Strout or Tyler we know that the moment might just as well go the other way, towards epiphany.

In that case the result could risk sentimentality, something that Norman determinedly evades, as resolutely as she does any paradoxically affirmative potential that a denouement of high drama might offer. Though there are cries to be heard of varying intensity, ‘Night, Mother ends not with a bang but with a whimper. If there’s an inherent limitation of character in the range on which Rebecca Night’s Jessie can draw, Channing will surely be working on the complicated balance that is her character as this Hampstead run proceeds. The rewards should be potent.

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