When All You Have Left is Everything: ‘night, Mother at Chehalem Players Repertory
Someone you love, someone you’ve lived with, assisted, and depended on decides unequivocally to commit suicide, but instead of an agonized, vaguely-worded note, they leave you with the better part of an evening to prepare yourself. Would it be better to know? And how would you spend those final hours? What would you do or say, knowing what the dawn would bring?
These are the questions posed by Chehalem Players Repertory’s latest production, ‘night, Mother. The show aims for true, emotional brilliance, and makes a strong case in part, but does lose some ground with a too-tightly restrained character portrayal, shifting its overall description from exquisite to merely compelling. Which, to be sure, is still fairly impressive.
Thelma Cates’ first reaction, upon hearing of her daughter Jessie’s plan to kill herself, is to nervously laugh it off as a tasteless joke, but when Jessie remains steadfast in her decision to prepare her mother for a daughterless world, Thelma struggles with the violent effort of holding herself together. For the duration of the play, she becomes a kind of Scheherazade, franticly sharing recollections while searching for answers, and coaxing reluctant memories from Jessie in an attempt to prolong the seemingly inevitable. Marsha Norman’s script does a fine job of balancing Thelma’s anxious attempts at reason and painfully earnest pleas with Jessie’s measured responses and distracted busywork, and Chehalem’s production illustrates this dynamic very well. Against an impressively realistic kitchen and living room set, Virginia Kincaid’s Thelma and Meghan Daaboul’s Jessie engage in a combative dance of wills. Dishes become distractions and spoons become symbols as Jessie attempts to set her mother’s life in order before she departs, and all the while Thelma does everything she can to deny it.
Kincaid does a phenomenal job portraying Thelma’s turbulent emotional journey. Suitably jaded by routine at the start, she seamlessly shifts from one tactic to the next, hoping to prevent or delay Jessie’s fate, until the widening fissures in her once-calm façade eventually blow apart. Then, Kincaid emerges as a burst of pure, anguished energy. In her total abandon she nearly drags the audience on stage with her. Her pain and confusion surge out like a shockwave, and as the story deepens and untold revelations begin to surface, her moments of reflection and realization are utterly sincere.
Meghan Daaboul’s Jessie is a very different sort of character. Far from wearing her broken heart on her sleeve, she maintains a matter-of-fact stoicism to cover the pain of life’s apparent intolerability, and the resulting sullen behavior is something that Daaboul captures perfectly. Hollow-eyed and deliberate, she exists in a perpetual state of the forlorn and inevitable, and for a fair percentage of the show this behavior fits. An issue arises, however, when the script calls for a softer reverie or tentative curiosity, and the sullen behavior keeps on, unaltered. During these times, what should be revealing moments of raw pain feel more akin to surface petulance, and it’s difficult to sympathize with Jessie given her apparent lack of humanity. Daabaoul does get a chance to shine near the play’s finale, and runs with it, but the events leading to that point would have carried more weight if given greater emotional depth.
That one criticism aside, ‘night, Mother has a lot going for it. Kincaid and Daaboul have a natural chemistry, and their mother/ daughter portrayal is absolutely believable. The pacing is generally well done, with good use of quiet moments and plot shifts, and the production illustrates, with precision and clarity, the power of a simply written script centered on a complex idea. It’s the kind of show guaranteed to prompt discussion, and one that will likely stay with you.
The show runs through November 11th at the Chehalem Cultural Center. Tickets available here.