Let’s get this straight, ‘night Mother at the Strand will leave you out of breath and speechless after its final horrifyingly beautiful moment. The play, winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize, concerns a mother and her daughter who informs her that she is going to kill herself this very night. The next 90 minutes (almost exactly) shows Thelma, simply known as Mama”, trying every tactic she can think of to convince her unflinching daughter, Jessie, to choose to live.
If taken at face value, the show has the potential to feel almost like a thriller; with the whole show leading up to the “will she or won’t she” final moment. This production however, honors Marsha Norman’s text in the most beautiful way possible by completely avoiding this. There is no question in our minds as we watch the show unfold what will happen, the interesting part is not trying to figure out the end, but rather watching the unwavering certainty on Jessie’s face and watching Mama do everything she can to stop it, knowing that it most likely won’t work. The show is an exercise in power control, who has it and who wants it, as well an exploration into isolation and loneliness and the means we’ll go to in order to end it.
The cast consists of only two actors: Kathryn Falcone playing Mama, and Andrea Bush playing Jessie. The palpable tension these two manage to create onstage is astoundingly raw and vivid. The synergy and hyper focus they have is unparalleled to anything I have seen on a Baltimore stage.
Kathryn Falcone fires through this play with the ferocity and intensity of a woman with nothing left to lose. Mama is such a hard role to play because she is a walking contradiction. One moment she is hilariously poking fun at everything in sight and the next she is fighting for her daughter’s life, and then back to making jokes all over again. This back and forth can be a huge stumbling block, but Falcone deftly uses it as a tool to expose Mama’s psyche to us. We see every thought she has clearly laid out before us. Falcone also proves herself to be a master of tension. Actors (artists in general really) are nothing except controllers of tension, and Falcone has proven with this role to be a master at it. When watching this production she makes you stop breathing with her performance, and you only start breathing again once she lets you. You laugh when she wants you to and you cry when she wants you to. There’s no other way to describe Falcone’s performance than perfection.
Andrea Bush as Jessie gives a riveting performance that I imagine would make Kathy Bates proud! (Bates originated the role on Broadway). There’s not a single beat that she hasn’t explored and mined for all the emotional weight it’s worth. At times, I do wish she could have made Jessie more resolute in her decision to end her life. Bush had a tendency to give us the suggestion that there was hope she might change her mind before the night was over. This felt at odds with the overall approach to the show that heavily leaned into the idea that Jessie is the impregnable wall that Mama is pushing against, uncompromising in her decision. But even if I felt as though stronger choices existed, Bush executed her Jessie with flawless precision.
The set, by designer TJ Lukacsina, manages to almost literally bring a ranch-style house onstage, complete with running water! The most astonishing thing about the design is how natural and realistic it feels. Nothing quite matches perfectly and some appliances are brand new whereas others look as though they’re generations old. This disjointedness, although it momentarily pulled me out of the narrative, ultimately serves the naturalism of the piece beautifully. Characters living on a budget don’t care about the design of their home they’re just concerned about having the things they need.
Director Anne Hammontree directs as though she’s giving us a master class. The emotional depth she manages to pull from both of her actors is worthy of all the praise I could possibly give. Hammontree guides this production to heights that both elevate the script and challenge our notions of what we think we know about suicide and depression. This is some of the most vulnerable and honest direction I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Go, go, go, go, go! I can’t say it enough! This production slays every second of the 90 minutes you’re there. But make sure you are emotionally prepared; this show demands just as much vulnerability from its audience as it does from its actors.
Running time just under 90 minutes. Playing at The Strand through October 14th.