‘… ‘night, Mother’

‘…’night, Mother’ was written by the Kentucky-born, Vice-President of the Dramatists’ Guild of America, Marsha Norman who went on to receive the ‘1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama’ for this her Magnus Opus on family conflict, followed by a Tony Award nomination for ‘Best Play’.

Surprisingly, the 1986 film ‘…’night, Mother’ which starred Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft was considered disappointing.

After such a dark play as this, it is hard to believe that Marsha Norman’s speciality is adapting well-known films into stage musicals. Her strange repertoire includes ‘The Color of Purple – the Musical’, ‘The Bridges of Madison County – musical’ and ‘The Secret Garden – musical’, with many of her musicals also winning major awards. Even at 70 yrs. she is still as busy as ever with her writing.

The Old Mill Theatre Company is proudly presenting this tense, adults-only drama in the Old Mill Theatre, on the corner of Mends Street and Mill Point Road in South Perth. The 95-minute (no interval) gruelling look at two lives begins at the slightly earlier time of 7.30 pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings until 20th October. There is a Sunday matinée on 7th, with another on 14th October at 2.00 pm.

As the rate of suicides rises in our community, story is particularly timely because of October’s Mental Health Week being the 7th-14th October.

The scene: The play unravels in real time. A typical Saturday night in Mrs Cates’ isolated country home, in a southern state of America.

The set: is another masterpiece from George Boyd, who both designed and built the set alone. On one side of the stage is a large sitting room, with a three-seater Chesterfield sofa. The arch at the rear of the room – with George’s eye for detail – even has a trim mould. This arch led into a passageway with a staircase, cupboards and a door that led to the bedrooms. To the right was a stunning, light oak kitchen with a dozen units (all full of food and implements). A dark marble bench top had a working sink. There was a recessed fridge-freezer, a pine table and chairs.

George doesn’t just put into a set what is ‘required’, but irrespective of the work involved, what would be there. This set had a door that was never used, a brick fireplace, and a raised kitchen floor. The three clocks on the walls showed us how time was frighteningly ticking by. The cream walls were painted by Sheila Wileman.

The stage manager, Bronwyn Hammond, was assisted by Alexis Allegret. After the show they would have been kept busy restocking the sweet bowls, food items and cleaning.

John Woolrych’s lighting was inventive, with areas being picked out for intense dialogue. John Spurling’s sound design worked very well with the lighting. David Wheeler’s opening song had most appropriate lyrics.

         Dressed in a tasteless mix of clothing, an elderly, domineering mother, Thelma (Suzannah Churchman) is preparing a meal for her and her middle-aged, epileptic daughter, Jessie (Caroline McDonnell).
         Whilst working in the kitchen, Jessie, who seems much more relaxed and less depressed than usual, starts explaining to her mother where to buy her favourite brands of food, what day the bins must be put out, and other various minor domestic details. Then, after years of being an unloved, domestic slave, Jessie suddenly advises her mother that she plans to kill herself ‘in a couple of hours’. Thelma laughs, and refuses to take her daughter seriously, but when Jessie continues tidying and cleaning, Thelma realises that she may be serious.
        Initially the mother tries the hard approach, but as family secrets come to the surface the whole atmosphere changes and the tension builds.

This play had so many of the properties and topics that normally make me cringe, as they cause actors often fail. Number one in the list of dreaded failures comes an ‘American accent’, but thanks to James Hagan’s amazing tuition – and of course the skill of the actors – their accents matched, were soft and never varied throughout the whole performance.

Next on my failure list comes ‘two-handers’; with only two cast members, inevitably one actor will dry or lose pace, and have to be carried by the other. In this play both of the performances were flawless. Every nuance of the desperate conflict was clear in the body language and phrasing of the dialogue.

Next dread, ‘a first-time director’ who has selected one of the most difficult and confronting scripts of the decade to present; a guaranteed disaster. However, director Gino Cataldo, who has proved his acting skills many times over the years, has selected a pair of genuinely talented actors and his debut result was masterly.

A storyline that is ‘dialogue based’ is often tedious. In this production, Gino had both actors constantly moving around, cleaning, cooking and eating, helping to hold the audience’s attention throughout.

There are many styles of plays, from farces to Shakespearean dramas; from musicals to a good yarn, all of which can be considered as relatively light, pleasant entertainment; and then occasionally a top-rate drama comes to the Perth Community stage. A play that not only challenges the best of actors, but the audience too.

Many audiences complain that they never see anything ‘new’, well here you have it, a superbly written story, crammed with emotion and presented by an exceptional team. The whole experience leaves you numb and wondering what would you do in this tragic situation?

Last year, both Suzannah and Caroline were nominated for prestigious Finley Acting Awards. In the past, both performers have excelled in most genres, and so the immense quality of their performances in this production came as no surprise. The subtle display of deeply felt emotion was potent throughout the actors’ performances. At the climax, they shed tears and I am sure that you will too.

Not an easy play to watch, but an experience to admire and remember for years to come. A play where I desperately wanted to give a standing ovation but found myself dazed and frozen to my seat.

Could this play be ‘Production of the Year’? VERY many congratulations.