October 28, 2004

UT's 'Night, Mother successfully shows sick psyche

"Tell them...we just sat around tonight like every other night of our lives, and then I came over and kissed you and said, ‘Night, Mother,' and you heard me close my bedroom door, and the next thing you heard was the shot."

Put on this past weekend by University Theater (UT), ‘Night, Mother is the sort of theatrical experience that leaves your insides screaming with the horror of life. Jessie, played by Zarina Feinman, coolly reveals within the first ten minutes that she plans on committing suicide in a couple of hours, though she wants to spend the rest of the evening as if everything were normal. Jessie's mother, Thelma, played by Pamela Pascoe, is as helpless as the audience for the next hour and a half as the pair crashes through a series of yet-unrevealed secrets and unasked questions. A tumultuous journey through life, despair, and even love, the dialogue between mother and daughter leads to an incredibly visceral climax that just makes you want to hug someone and cry.

The physical appearances of Pascoe and Feinman contributed to a convincing production. The actual difference in their ages was a touch rarely seen in student theaters such as UT. Even before the official start of the play, as both actresses moved about the set, cleaning with 409, drinking coffee, and working crossword puzzles, I noticed the striking similarities between them, such as their slight builds. As a result, when looking at Pascoe and Feinman, I saw a mother and a daughter, not two actresses pretending to be related.

Both actresses were incredibly apt at winning the audience's sympathy, especially considering the enormous challenges of their roles. Pamela Pascoe, who also directed ‘Night, Mother, is a resident actor and instructor here at the University. A humbly stated biography in the program states that she "has performed on, off, and off-off Broadway." It was hard to imagine that the description was referring to the same timid, sweat pants-wearing woman scuffling awkwardly about onstage, so fully did Pascoe bring Thelma to life. Such an experienced actor might have intimidated others, but fourth-year Zarina Feinman held her own as Jessie. Her calm manner could have perhaps been broken on a few more lines, but, in the end, Feinman's reserved and controlled style was appropriate. Jessie is not like the more familiar, weeping suicidal characters who decide to live as soon as a loved one shows that they care. Jessie is unrelenting in her decision to end her life, despite Thelma's clawing efforts.

The final moments of the production are extremely painful to watch. Jessie tells her mother that it is time for her to go. Thelma is confused, having thought that since they had reached an emotional understanding, Jessie would not carry through with her plans. Jessie grabs the gun and runs to the black door where the audience has known all along she would exit to shoot herself. The highlight of Feinman's performance comes with the wild look on her face as she calls out, "Night, mother!" and exits with a door slam. That look, a mixture of desperation and excitement, shouts, "This is it! This is what I've been planning for so long!" As Thelma banged on the door and pleaded with Jessie for what felt like over a minute, I made myself sick with dread. All my self-instructing—Don't scream when the gun goes off!—proved ineffective when the shot finally rang out. I wouldn't have screamed had I attended the Thursday performance, though. Evidently, a foot stomp had to substitute for the gunshot that night.

The lights, exquisitely subtle throughout the proceeding drama, continued to be unobtrusive even as they faded to leave a spotlight on Feinman for her poignant reaction: "Forgive me Jessie, I thought you were mine." In the final moments of the production, she moved into the only other light on stage at that point, a lamp that grew brighter as she approached. The spotlight remained on the black door, Jessie's exit from the stage, and her exit from life. The dramatic effect of these lighting decisions would not have been possible had lighting changes inserted themselves as interpretational devices throughout the rest of the play. Rather, the kitchen and living room were lit at relatively constant levels up until this point, just as they would be in a real house.

Along with the light design by Yi Zhao, the set design by Mark Desmarais, environment design by Adam Kucharski, and props by Johanna Solomon contributed to a bleak realism that is not often pursued in UT productions. The production didn't skimp on any details; even the kitchen sink was included. ‘Night, Mother was fortunate to receive the old cabinets and counters of Pascoe's recently remodeled kitchen. A large set of shelves held all the dusty knickknacks that live in every house: an old trophy, a wooden duck, candy dishes, magazines that should have been thrown away long ago. One of the only moments that reminded the audience they were not sitting in an actual house came when Pascoe had to pantomime washing her hands beneath the dry water spigot of the sink. It is easy to imagine that discussions of adding plumbing to the First Floor Theater probably took place, even if only jokingly, so extensive and complete was the physical creation of Jessie and Thelma's world.

‘Night, Mother was a little too successful. It left me feeling existentially aware and depressed. After the lights came up and the actresses took their bows, I heard the fellow behind me say, "I think we need to watch a Disney movie now to cheer ourselves up." I went back to Snell-Hitchcock and played in the leaves.