The New York Times
THEATER: 'NIGHT, MOTHER' AT HARVARD
It seems like just an ordinary night in an ordinary house in some ordinary Middle-American neighborhood. Jessie Cates (Kathy Bates) and Thelma (Anne Pitoniak), her widowed mother, are rattling around their living room, getting ready for another evening of dinner, crocheting and idle talk. But only a few minutes into Marsha Norman's new play, '' 'Night, Mother,'' Jessie makes a calm but shattering announcement. ''I'm going to kill myself, Mom,'' she says.
Though Thelma at first prefers to disbelieve her ears, her daughter isn't kidding. Jessie is all packed and ready to go. She's made a list of things to do before she shoots herself: She wants to teach her mother how to work the washing machine, to eat a last caramel apple, to get the real lowdown on her parents' marriage. The list isn't long, however, and in 90 minutes Jessie has taken care of every item. By the time the play reaches its inevitable climax, death itself is almost redundant. ''You're already gone, aren't you?'' asks the mother with horror some time after feeling her daughter's unnaturally cold hands. And so, we come to realize, Jessie almost is.
'' 'Night, Mother,'' which is having its premiere at Harvard's American Repertory Theater, is one of the most disturbing American plays of recent seasons. You can pick at it and argue with it, but you can't hide from its bruising impact. Unlike so many latter-day plays that ask ''Whose life is it, anyway?,'' this one is not a sentimental problem drama about suicide or a stirring paean to man's right to die with dignity. Miss Norman, the author of the powerful ''Getting Out,'' is more concerned with honesty than preaching. She takes two barren lives and, a few small melodramatic contrivances aside, serves them up raw in a dramatic format that seems as inexorable as classic tragedy.
During the brief time that separates Jessie's announcement from the play's resolution, we learn everything about daughter and mother that we need to know - no more. Jessie is an overweight, shy loser whose husband has long ago left her and whose teen-age son is a criminal on the lam. Her mother is a ''plain country woman,'' gabby, selfish and useless. Both their lives are defined by shopping lists, television shows, junk food and small-town gossip.
Miss Norman, a Louisville native, gives the Cates a Southern twang, but her women don't belong to the eccentric Old South of Beth Henley and Flannery O'Connor; they're part of the flat, homogenized New South we find in the fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason or in Robert Altman's ''Nashville.'' As brilliantly designed by Heidi Landesman, their ticky-tacky home is a modern shrine of alienation - as sterile as a K-Mart, as lonely as an Edward Hopper painting. Early on, Thelma says that she never fears thieves breaking into the house because ''we don't have anything people would want.'' It isn't hard to see what she means.
Yet if these two women are inarticulate and their lives are without point, they are still mother and daughter. Much of the play is a relentless exploration of that blood tie, with all the guilt and hurt and misunderstanding and love that it entails. Thelma begs Jessie to stay ''a few more years'' so that she won't have to face her own death alone. ''You are my child!'' she cries, but her daughter replies sadly, ''I am what became of your child.'' Ultimately, it is the mother who becomes the child, crying on the floor, throwing pots in a temper tantrum, trying anything to get her way. But Jessie will not be moved.
As the daughter sees it, her life is ''all I really have that belongs to me'' and she is entitled to end it. She never amounted to much and has no reason to believe things will change. ''I'm somebody I waited for who never came and never will,'' she says dispassionately. ''I'm not going to show up. There's no reason to stay.'' Even her own child brings her no solace, for she views her delinquent son as the eternally doomed product of his battling parents: ''Ricky is the two of us together for all time, in too small a place, tearing each other apart.''
'' 'Night, Mother'' is full of such plain, explosive dialogue. This spare play is not an inflated, abstract argument about life versus death, but an intimate eavesdropping on two people, who, in the mother's words, don't know what they're here for and, until this moment, have tried not to think about it. It is all so real that we're all the more conscious of those rare moments when the playwright intrudes. It seems excessive that Jessie, on top of all her other woes, would have a disease (epilepsy) that her mother has refused to acknowledge for many years. It also seems archly theatrical, even in a drama set in real time, for the set to have six clocks that count down to zero-hour.
The director, Tom Moore, has choreographed the action masterfully, with a forceful, uncluttered naturalism that recalls the New York production of Franz Xaver Kroetz's similar German work, ''Request Concert,'' two seasons ago. The actresses, both veterans of Louisville's Actors Theater, are also excellent, though there are occasional moments of actorly artifice that could be stripped away.
Miss Bates makes no bid for sympathy: she simply embodies the daughter's dull, anonymous personality. In her baggy clothes and sheenless, scraggly hair, she could be any of the many lumpy people we see every day but don't notice. We certainly understand why her husband ran out on her and why her most successful job has been as a saleswoman at a hospital gift shop.
As the mother, Miss Pitoniak has more to do. This actress, the lady with the lamps in ''Talking With'' at the Manhattan Theater Club earlier this season, must ride through fear, desperation, self-pity, rage, grief and even forced good cheer. She is very funny when she talks about a friend ''who burned down every house she ever had.'' She can be pathetic when announcing that ''this is all my fault, but I don't know what to do about it now.''
When the mother finally accepts her fate, Miss Pitoniak is harrowing. Suddenly worrying about what she'll tell the neighbors about Jessie's suicide, she pulls her face into a grotesque mask of sociability and rehearses her line in front of her daughter: ''It was something personal - that's what I'll say.''
But what can anyone say, really? In '' 'Night, Mother,'' Miss Norman sends us crashing into one of life's horrible, unpreventable accidents, then leaves us helplessly contemplating the casualty list. Sterile, Lonely Lives'NIGHT, MOTHER, by Marsha Norman; directed by Tom Moore; sets and costumes by Heidi Landesman; lighting by James F. Ingalls; production stage manager, John Grant-Phillips; assistant stage managers, Abbie H. Katz and Kristina C. Kinet; assistant to the stage managers, Antony Rudie. Presented by the American Repertory Theater, Robert Brustein, artistic director; Robert J. Orchard, managing director. At the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Mass. Thelma Cates: Anne Pitoniak, Jessie Cates: Kathy Bates
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