Night, Mother

Screenshots from Invictus Theatre Company's "'night, Mother' featuring Keisha Yelton-Hunter (top left) as Thelma Cates and Courtney Gardner as Jessie Cates. 

While the city's larger theaters have put their live seasons on hold during the pandemic and presented mostly educational programming online, some of the small storefront ensembles are forging ahead with digital productions and even inviting reviewers.

One result is that I'm seeing shows by younger companies I probably wouldn't cover under normal circumstances. Invictus Theatre Company's live stream of Marsha Norman's "'night, Mother" is a case in point — and a revelation.

This version of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize–winning drama features two remarkable performances by actors who have few theater credits under their belts. They're all the more impressive for being Zoom-boxed into a setting that's supposed to be a single kitchen and living room when, in reality, it's the performers' two different apartments.

Hailed as “shattering” by the New York Times when it opened on Broadway in 1983, "'night, Mother" depicts what would be an ordinary evening at home for a fifty-something mother, Thelma Cates (Tekeisha Yelton-Hunter) and her mid-thirties daughter, Jessie Cates (Courtney Gardner), except that the daughter — after casually asking for her late father's pistol — announces that she plans to kill herself at the end of it.

Under Diane Sintich's careful direction, Gardner's heavy-set, taciturn Jessie and Yelton-Hunter's relatively slight, talkative Thelma are a study in contrasts who try to communicate despite the mother-daughter tensions between them. They simultaneously love and are isolated from each other, a situation cannily mirrored by the necessary staging.

The women's interactions are a mix of the mundane and the unprecedented, as Jessie resolutely and implacably goes about the household tasks she believes are necessary to prepare Mama for what's to come. She folds laundry, re-covers the couch, cleans out the refrigerator, and gives detailed instructions on what to do immediately after her death. Meanwhile, Thelma tries everything she can think of — pleading, bargaining, cajoling, criticizing, guilt-tripping — to dissuade her daughter from committing suicide.

Along the way, we learn some of the reasons Jessie might want to kill herself. Suffering from depression and epilepsy (which went undiagnosed from childhood but now is controlled by medication), she hasn't been able to hold down a job. She's separated from her husband, Cecil, and moved in with Mama when he gave her a choice between smoking and their marriage. She couldn't give up cigarettes. Her son, Ricky, is a drug-addicted delinquent whose location is unknown. She misses her dead father. She's not on good terms with her brother, Dawson and wants to keep him away from the house until she's gone. Though she claims to be feeling good, her self-esteem is basically zero.

Thelma has arguments to counter these disappointments, and the women ask each other questions — both trivial and significant — they wouldn't normally. But ultimately, Jessie explains calmly that her life has no meaning, she doesn't want to continue, and ending it is the one thing she can control.

I'm not sure if the playwright meant us to sympathize with Jessie's position — or even to recognize the futility of the lives of both these ordinary women (and, by extension, all of us) — but I wasn't buying it. Despite Gardner's compelling performance, my feelings were for Thelma, though mistakes she made with her daughter are exposed. This is Yelton-Hunter's first theater performance, and it's gut-wrenching, yet also at times funny, annoying and most of all very human.

Of the Zoom productions I've seen so far, "'night, Mother" does quite a bit to make the most of the medium, thanks to a team of designers that includes Joseph Beal (set/properties), Satoe Schechner (costumes), Kate McDuffie (stage manager), Charles Askenaizer (production manager), Chad Lussier (technical director), Arlicia McClain (assistant director) and Ana Schedler (graphic designer). The kitchens of the two actors match as closely as possible, and many props from cups of cocoa to a couch cover are passed from one to the other, requiring considerable coordination.

There are lots of cinematic effects achieved by using several cameras, though some are more successful than others. The stark white bedroom door behind which Jessie locks herself at the end gets special attention, leading to a finale that's almost as moving as it would be on stage.

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