Tiffany Raymond, ‘Burgh Vivant
Marsha Norman’s 1978 Pulitzer Prize winning play, “‘night Mother,” recently crested its 40th birthday, and while some details are inevitably dated, the play’s themes are still relevant today. It’s a dark family drama centered on a middle-aged daughter, Jessie (Briauna Brownfield), a divorcee living with her aging mother, Thelma (Samantha A. Camp).
At the start, Jessie announces she is going to commit suicide, and the play unfolds real-time, making the 90-minute show the same duration as the play’s action. Norman’s writing is incredibly tight, creating an intense hour and half for actresses and audience alike.
“‘night Mother” is a character-driven, dialogue-heavy play, and the emotionally weighty subject of suicide requires exceptional acting. Unfortunately, Throughline thoroughly misses in casting Brownfield as Jessie. Jessie is middle-aged in the play, but Brownfield is closer in age to Jessie’s young adult son.
Age aside, Brownfield gives a steadily one-dimensional, monotone performance. Her relentlessly flat affect is tedious, leaving one to wonder if director Sarah McPartland ever attended a rehearsal. The theater is small, and the close proximity visibly betrays Brownfield is often simply trying to remember her lines, which removes the potential for emotional nuance. Jessie’s compiled a list of personal questions to ask (“Did you love Daddy?”) and perfunctory information to share (the dryer repair number is taped to the side of the machine). Both the banal and the secret are unified under the same void expression, which prohibits the play from reaching its emotional valence. Brownfield’s only nod to tension is to touch and straighten her glasses, which may just be a nervous tic.
Age-wise, Camp would be better suited to play Jessie. Brownfield’s phone-in performance definitely helps Camp shine as the stronger of the two actresses. Thelma’s character limps and uses a cane, which Camp observes with flagrant degrees of inconsistency, another missed opportunity for director Sarah McPartland. Camp does exhibit emotional range in her parade of reactions to Jessie’s suicide pronouncement that includes everything from total dismissiveness to downright panic to blame and self-pity. At one point, Thelma angrily knocks her crochet basket off of the coffee table, and it’s a moment of palpable tension where the fourth wall feels compromised as the basket comes hurtling towards the audience. Thelma loves candy, and in a thoughtful detail from McPartland, a hidden sweets stash comes flying out from beneath the yarn.
Tucker Topel’s set design is a praiseworthy bright spot. Visually, the set is rife with details that thoughtfully coalesce and immediately express this is a lower-middle class home, including a poor man’s cabinet door of a curtain on a slightly sagging string beneath the kitchen sink. The most resounding detail is partially exposed lath and plaster walls showing the inner layers of the home in a way that beautifully parallels the characters peeling back their own layers and exposing their truths over the course of the night.
A costume designer is conspicuously absent from the crew list. Both actresses appear to have been left to their own devices without directorial guidance from McPartland to visually unify them. To Camp’s credit, her Thelma is on point. She shuffles about in gray house slippers with faded black socks. She’s appropriately fashion-forgettable in her coral top as the hemline of her polyester skirt flirts with the top of her socks. The skirt’s floral pattern is trying to emerge from an unappealing chocolate brown background, mirroring Thelma’s own quagmire.
Jessie never leaves the house, and the play notes her getting house slippers for holidays, a woman old before her time. Yet, Brownfield’s sneakers read more hipster than house shoes, and she’s sporting an anklet that may fit her personal life but should be shuttered for the show. She’s supposed to be wearing her son’s clothes, suggesting the degree to which she decries caring about her appearance, but Brownfield’s form-fitting denim overalls are decidedly on-trend and feminine. The play takes place on a Saturday night, which is when Jessie does Thelma’s manicure. While the dialogue explicitly refers to Thelma’s chipped nails, her manicure look salon-fresh. The small, intimate venue makes visible these cumulative cracks that compound and diminish impact.
Despite the fact there are only two actresses in the show, the program’s cast list has their names reversed. It’s symptomatic of the show’s collective lack of attention to detail. The production feels premature, as if we’re seeing a rehearsal, so it may come together more tightly as the production run progresses. Norman’s writing is worth experiencing. She doesn’t shy away from the intricacies of how families hurt each other, even if the intent is good, and her exploration of a woman contemplating suicide is even more relevant today as suicide numbers reach all-time highs.
“‘night Mother” plays through July 27 at the Aftershock Theater, 115 57th Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15201 (on a seasonal note, fans are abundant, but the theater is not air conditioned). For more information, click here.