Contrary to the lyric in the theme song for the movie M*A*S*H, suicide isn't always painless. In fact, the pain is often profound for the friends and loved ones who are left behind, especially since many suicides happen in private and are therefore mysterious and agonizing.
Not so for the impending tragedy that sits at the center of 'night Mother by Marsha Norman, now at Beck Center. This suicide-in-progress is announced early on by the 40-ish Jessie, who tells her mother Thelma that she plans to use the gun she found in the attic to do the deed.
This news comes as a shock to Thelma, even though she's aware of her daughter's spiraling life: recently divorced, saddled with a grown son who's a petty thief, unable to work due to her epileptic seizures (or "fits," as Thelma calls them).
Jessie, who has lived with mom since the divorce, busies herself on this evening with mundane domestic chores. Enacted in real time, she fills Thelma's many candy dishes with an impressive variety of sweets, sweeps the floor, folds clothes and such. She is tidying the nest and going over instructions for her mother about where the medicines are and when to take out the garbage. She doesn't want to leave a mess.
While Jessie methodically enacts this pre-death ritual cleansing, Thelma thrashes about for some way to stop the suicide train Jessie has boarded. She bounces from challenging Jessie's reasons for killing herself to revealing secrets about their past, anything to make Jessie stop and think. Or just stop.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning play is an almost perfectly structured work, spare in its language and devastating in its unavoidable conclusion. Therefore, it is a splendid playground for two talented actors such as Laura Perrotta and Dorothy Silver.
The rigidly contained Perrotta is magnificent in portraying Jessie as a woman with no future left, shuffling and speaking in a dull monotone. She sounds like death would sound, if death could speak. And she does justice to Norman's simple yet telling words, describing how she already feels cold all the time, implying that dying wouldn't be much different.
Intent on completing final tasks for her mother, such as giving her a manicure, Perrotta's Jessie has a dual focus that works well throughout. And the fact that the manicure never happens is just one more piece of evidence that Jessie is trapped in an existence that she can't control. Indeed, she says she is attracted to suicide because, "I need something that will work."
In the challenging role of Thelma, the renowned Dorothy Silver finds many of the darkly humorous moments in the play and lands them solidly. When Jessie says longingly that death would be dark and quiet, Silver responds with perfect timing: "So is the back yard!"
However, on opening night Silver glided across the top of several key moments rather than digging in, an overly casual approach she likely won't repeat as the run continues. Still, her Thelma cajoles and encourages Jessie at every turn, but eventually realizes that her daughter's decision is vacuum-sealed and impenetrable. At one point, Thelma cries out, "You are my child!" and Jessie responds, "No! I am what became of your child."
By weaving the turbulent mother-daughter dynamics together with Jessie's dead-end life, the play comments on the value of life without either character ever uttering a didactic speech, the kind that ruins so many contemporary plays. The playwright, and director Scott Plate, respect the audience enough to let them come to their own conclusions.
There are some faint wrinkles. A couple major beats aren't held quite long enough. And when Thelma finally makes Jessie laugh, in a reference to the old woman's singing, Jessie's open smile is missing the slight rictus of irony that's needed.
Playwright Norman's script is a perfect GPS device for locating loneliness and depression, no "recalculating" required. And this production delivers the audience to that destination with harrowing assurance.
Through May 4 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org.
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