“I’m going to kill myself, Mama.”

‘night, Mother, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Marsha Norman, is a tear-jerking theatrical masterpiece. Jessie, a middle-aged woman, calmly informs her mother Thelma of her plan to commit suicide. This mother-daughter two-hander beautifully encapsulates the stages of grief before a loss even occurs. 

Directed by South Australia’s media and arts legend Peter Goers, Holden Street Theatre’s production of ‘night, Mother is an emotionally charged presentation infused with witty dark comedy. 

Martha Lott’s performance as Jessie is complex and ultimately genius. Her closed gestures and subtle fidgets underscore eloquently Jessie’s introverted personality. Her composed voice makes her delivery of depressing texts heartbreaking, while her comedic moments are wonderful. Lott masterfully embodies the numbness beneath Jessie’s wit and calmness. 

Kathryn Fisher, who portrays her mother, Thelma, emanates a contrasting energy. Fisher’s stage presence is dynamic and animated, in artful contrast to Lott’s low-key naturalistic delivery. On the colourful set with late ’70s furniture, designed by Gary Anderson, she almost looks like a sitcom character. However, the pain in her eyes is compelling. It is a fascinating performance.

From playful interactions to painful confessions, the actors create a complicated yet delightful mother-daughter dynamic. 

This play is deliberately time-conscious. “Shoot myself. I’ll do it in about an hour and a half,” says Jessie, five minutes into the show. It is significant to note that Norman’s original script reads, “Shoot myself. In a couple of hours.” This brilliant line change allows the audience to live through the action in real time.

 An interesting sound motif is that the wall clock rings every 15 minutes, adding a sense of urgency. Unlike the phenomenon of audience members looking at their watches wondering when a show might be over, in this production, the actor/character does it; Jessie glances from time to time at the clock, awaiting her chosen hour. The suspense keeps audiences guessing whether or not she will be alive when the clock strikes at nine o’clock. 

If the story has a happy ending, one would wonder what it takes to convince someone that life is worth living: if it does not, one would then wonder how to convince someone to let go. 

‘night, Mother, though a play about suicide, does not contemplate life or death. It explores grief. Thelma goes through all five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), while Jessie has long since reached acceptance. 

When it comes to death-related grief, one usually does not get to bargain. The fate is sealed. Thelma is forced to grieve her very much still-alive daughter and to accept an occurrence of loss before it arrives. It is a superbly contrived and truly thought-provoking play.

‘night, Mother is playing at Holden Street Theatres until November 25.

Nicky Tsz Tung Li is the fourth recipient of the Helpmann Academy InReview Mentorship. She is working with experienced writer Samela Harris to write a series of articles for publication on InReview.

If this article has raised issues for you, you can get help 24/7 by phoning Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, phone 000 for emergency services.

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