WHAT “ ’night, Mother,” by Marsha Norman
WHEN | WHERE Through March 19. Upcoming: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Studio Theatre, 141 S. Wellwood Ave., Lindenhurst
TICKETS $25; 631-226-8400, studiotheatreli.com
Jessie was always Daddy’s girl. But Daddy is deceased and Jessie’s mother can’t get through to her in these fateful, final hours.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Jessie plans to kill herself in Marsha Norman’s 1983 Pulitzer-winning drama, “ ’night, Mother,” harrowingly played at Studio Theatre by Maryellen Molfetta as the suicidal daughter and Sheila Sheffield as her helpless mom. Jessie matter-of-factly announces her intention early on — right after she asks Mama where Daddy’s gun is stored. Her mother, Thelma, thinks she wants the weapon for protection from burglars out in the Virginia countryside that Daddy once farmed. “We don’t have anything people would want,” she says. Looking around the tidy but sterile domesticity of Joe Rubino’s set, there’s nothing worth stealing, except perhaps the clock that ticks inexorably to the end.
“I’m going to kill myself, Mama,” Jessie says with a flat affect — as if she’d said, “I’m going to make hot chocolate, Mama.” Hot chocolate is Jessie’s last request. But not even that works out for her. The milk’s gone rancid.
Delicately directed by David Dubin, Molfetta’s Jessie embraces hopelessness like a warm gun. Her eyes look hauntingly dead, anticipating her character’s last wish to end a life that is all she owns. Sheffield teeters desperately from a mother’s furtive attempt to distract her child from distress to the horrifying realization that Jessie isn’t kidding.
In bits of conversation between these hapless women, we learn why Jessie says “no to hope.” She’s suffered epileptic seizures most of her life, making it impossible to hold a job. Her failed marriage produced a hoodlum son. She has no apparent interests. Since her divorce, she’s lived with and cared for her mother, who misconstrues that as a purpose in Jessie’s life. Whenever anyone visits, which, excepting her brother, is rarely, Jessie hides in her room.
“I want to hang a sign around my neck . . . ‘Gone fishin’,” she says.
But first, Jessie gets everything in order around the house before she checks out. Details of their lives are leaked like long-held secrets as Jessie goes through a mundane list of chores and instructions for Thelma, such as what day to take out the garbage.
If that’s all we had to live for, maybe we’d go fishin’, too. Painless, perhaps, for the one committing suicide, but what of the survivors?