Dallas — Echo Theatre’s production of ’night, Mother exemplifies why smaller Dallas arts organizations deserve tangible support. This is a boldly riveting 19th season opener to Echo, which produces only plays by women, and the producers have every reason to be proud of the work of director Christie Vela and her cast, Jessica Cavanagh (as Jessie) and Amber Devlin (as Thelma).
This play is the second of what are now described as playwright Marsha Norman’s “trapped girls” stories, the first being Getting Out, which won the 1979 Outer Critics Circle award. In that story, the lead character, just released from prison, returns home only to find herself still trapped by her past and the confines of her present. In ’night, Mother, which won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Norman progresses this trapped girls theme through characters that have been trapped by love, though in very different ways. It is a brilliant script.
The setting is the living room and kitchen of a modest little house on a country road. Thelma (Mama) Cates is a widow with two adult children, Jessie and Dawson. Dawson is married to Loretta. Jessie, divorced from Cecil, is now living with Thelma in Thelma’s house. Jessie has an adult son, Ricky, who is living on his own and struggling to move beyond a checkered past. Thelma and Jessie’s lives are basically surrounding each other, but Thelma does have one friend—her neighbor, Agnes. Jessie and Thelma are the storytellers. While we hear about the others but never see them.
On this night Jessie brings her daddy’s gun down from the attic and starts cleaning it. When Thelma asks why, Jessie reveals that she is going to kill herself this evening. After several minutes of back and forth, Thelma finally begins to realize that Jessie is serious. This story unfolds over 90 minutes without intermission. The audience becomes entrapped along with Thelma by the anticipation of what might happen, watching as these two characters fiercely battle each other for a way out.
Thelma tries desperately to figure out why Jessie has arrived at this decision, thinking back over their lives and looking for anything she might have changed or overlooked that could have improved Jessie’s life. Jessie, viewing her life through a series of disappointments, seems resolute in her choice to stop. Her unfinished business for this evening is to organize everything for her mother so that her routine will continue without too much interruption. Jessie checks her lists and the ones she has prepared to leave with Thelma. As Thelma contemplates her own culpability in the emotional damage to Jessica, she reveals previously guarded secrets and lies.
Devlin and Cavanagh, having mined these characters deeply, leave everything onstage. Their performances are superb. The trust between them is evidenced through sweeping rhythm and impeccable timing. The silences are like a big squeeze, offering a sense of relief and a breathlessness at the same time. Just as Thelma exhausts every possible avenue to try to stop Jessie, so do Devlin and Cavanagh wring everything of their characters’ hiding places. By the end of the play, the characters are spent and the audience is left speechless. On opening night some patrons, unable to move or leave their seats, remained focused on the playing area as if by doing so something might change.
One of Vela’s more interesting choices concerns timepieces. Time is important to Jessie. She lives through scheduling and lists and has timed everything out for the evening. Often during productions of this piece, several clocks are prominently situated on the set in view of the audience as offered in the script. But Vela has made a different decision and it works. Through the acting and movement, we are aware of the intensity and passage of time. The set is not prominently cluttered with clocks. There are timepieces present for the actors’ referral but they do not glare at the audience.
Another interesting element is the directional angling of Jeffrey Schmidt’s set. Parts of it are unexpectedly as a seamstress might say, on the bias. This is visually more interesting and is somewhat metaphorically reflective of the tension within the story. Brooks Powers’ lighting design is subtle and quiet in its suggestion of the changes in time and mood. The sound design by John M. Flores is quietly discomforting, which is perfect for this production.
In a 2010 Art&Seek interview, Vela said she likes plays that “feel like dangerous adrenaline rush rides at the amusement park. I don’t like letting the audience off the hook.” Clearly, she was serious about that.