Review: ‘Night, Mother

A balanced of light, shade and reams of texture

By Ross Larkin

One could be forgiven for hesitating at the prospect of a two-hander, set in real time, staged in one act, and all about suicide. It sounds gruelling for the audience and more gruelling for the actors. And it is – intensely so. However, it’s also not to be missed.

Marsha Norman’s daring and brutal piece makes no apologies for its subject matter. Right off the bat, middle-aged divorcee, Jessie, reveals, quite calmly to her ageing mother Thelma, with whom she resides, that she’s decided to take her own life, and plans to do so later the same evening. 

What ensues is an emotional minefield of denial, fear, rage, nostalgia and revelation as the pair unpack Jessie’s reasoning and Thelma tries every approach she can muster to talk her daughter out of it. 

Aside from desperate and harrowing, ‘Night, Mother is a fascinating character study, enhanced by the fact that Jessie is level-headed and contented with her decision. This is offset by Thelma’s spiral into despair as she tackles every stage of grief in the space of 90 minutes.

It’s a tall order for the most capable of creatives to undertake, and thankfully, Iron Lung Theatre succeeds in dealing with the content intelligently and thoroughly. 

Imperative that such a dialogue heavy piece set in one location find all the right emotional beat changes, subtext and layers, director Briony Dunn fleshes these out for the most part, particularly in the final third of the piece when the tension really starts to wreak havoc. 

As the troubled Jessie, Esther van Doornum brings a beautiful subtlety to a role, which, in the wrong hands, might risk an overly depressive portrayal, but van Doornum hits the mark with her matter-of-fact, often peaceful resolution, only letting tinges of sadness emerge at the most poignant moments.

Caroline Lee as Thelma has her work cut out for her in a heavily demanding role that requires a plethora of intense emotional states, and she does a fine job where many an actor might struggle.

‘Night, Mother may not be for the faint hearted, but it’s every bit engrossing and rewarding in a rare instance where extremely heavy content is balanced with light, shade and reams of texture. Iron Lung’s version of it is definitely worth seeking out.

‘Night, Mother is playing now at Chapel off Chapel in Prahran until August 17. Tickets are available online at www.chapeloffchapel.com.au or by calling the box office on 03 8290 7000.

Photography by Pia Johnson

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