It’s hard to talk about grief.
It’s hard to write about grief.
People talk in circles and denial runs as thick as herring roe. It often doesn’t make the most enticing dialogue either.
I mostly like to ignore talking about plot or even the simple crux. Such things are better to be discovered for yourself.
This time though, it’s rather hard to avoid: this play is a single two-hour conversation about suicide.
“’night, Mother” has two characters: an older, yappy woman and her languid adult daughter. They live together in the same house, the play’s singular setting.
The play begins with the daughter very calmly telling her mother that she’s going to kill herself that night. Then they proceed to talk about it uninterrupted for two hours.
There is no intermission.
The program claims the play lasts 90-odd minutes. That’s a damn lie. But the play is a slow, lumbering beast that needs to be taken for what it is.
It’s wonderful that the play stars two women, even if they spend virtually the entire time talking about men: the long-dead father, the absent brother, the troubled teenage son. Ninette S. Mordaunt plays the other, who has an actual name, but is mostly just called “Mama.”
The suicidal daughter, Jessie, is played by Lori Stewart. Both actors are clearly talented in a technical way, and the undertaking of the unbroken flow of a single titanic conversation is impressive to say the least.
The structure itself is glorious. It places both the strength of the writing and the ability of the performers fully on display.
Two people in a emotional battle of wits, peeling back years of unspoken truth. Sometimes it is very beautiful in passing moments, like a shimmering crystalline bauble. Mostly, it flows on in a steady march of inevitability by the impassioned tennis dialogue.
There are pockets of conversation that dip to one topic or another, the middle section colored, of course, by the denial of the pending promise of suicide and the desperate hope it can be averted.
It seems like the nature of the thing: it’s a conversation that wraps and loops in on itself like a foreshadowing of grief.
The play is frigid, slow and low in energy. The gibbering old woman is probably supposed to be endearing, and Mordaunt clearly has the skill to entertain. Mama’s blather mostly just comes off as asinine and grating.
Clearly, she’s intended to be that way and there’s nothing particularly unrealistic about the character; certainly, there are a lot of annoying people in the world. I just don’t want to have to listen to them for two unbroken hours.
Stewart gives a similar, if not oppositely polarized performance. Jessie has the calm poise and matter-of-fact delivery of someone who’s made up their mind to die. And certainly you don’t expect someone savaged by years of depression to be the proverbial life of the party.
Jessie is a rather bland person, a direct line from her rather bland mother, who jabbers about her love of candy or really whatever pops into her mind and slips past her nonexistent brain-to-mouth filter. Really, the tired rigmarole dragged to where I eventually eagerly awaited Jessie’s inexorable suicide.
This was probably not the intended reaction, but at least then something would change.
The brutality of the play’s unbroken window of honesty about death, suicide, family and mental illness shouldered by mother and daughter is likely what bagged it its Pulitzer Prize in 1983.
The play needs to stand on the shoulders of the only two characters it employs, and that is a more difficult task than anything.
It’s a play about two people utterly ill equipped to deal with the world, perhaps a commonality more terribly universal than anyone is willing to admit.
Graham Gentz is a play reviewer and columnist for the Daily lobo. He can be contacted at culture@daily lobo.com.
By Marsha Norman
Directed by Michael L. Miller
Aux Dog Theatre Nob Hill
3011 Monte Vista Blvd. NE
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.
Runs through June 29
$22 at door, $18 online
For more information, visit auxdog.com and 254-7716.