By Amy Kenny
How far would you go to control your own life? If ending it seemed the only option, would you have the case as well as the guts? One reason ‘Night, Mother works so well is its suicidal protagonist, Jessie, lays out the grounds for her own case in a way that makes perversely shocking sense.
Eclectic Theatre’s production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama ‘Night, Mother opened Thursday night at Toronto’s Artword Theatre.
The play is directed by Ryerson film studies continuing education student Jordan Merkur. It’s 90 minutes long and has no intermission — a technique used to make the audience feel the events on stage take place during real time.
The world of ‘Night, Mother is a connected kitchen and living room, where middle-aged Jessie tells her mother Thelma of her plan to end her life later that night.
What follows is an evening of rational explanations, pleas and spilled truths between the women. As Jessie (Alison Smiley) explains the control she will gain by committing suicide. Thelma (Jayne Eastwood) tries to talk her daughter off her mental ledge.
Smiley is at her best when she compares her promising childhood to the mess her life has become. Her speech is so touching, it makes even the non-suicidal think back to the “could-have-beens” of their own early years.
Eastwood moves skilfully through several emotional states: rage, acceptance, guilt and anger. The characters’ mood swings are sudden and intense as they struggle with feelings of love, hate and blame. Thelma’s emotional outbursts blame everyone from Jessie’s ex-husband to her father to herself. But only a moment later, she’s agreeing and acquiescing with her daughter, as if to make the final hours of Jessie’s life too pleasant to leave.
The ending is stark, emphasized by the first and only instance of music in the play — it’s even more effective than the play’s real-time feeling. The music eerily creates a mood of quiet contemplation for the final few minutes of the play.
Special praise goes to the two actors for handling lengthy interruptions. Twice during the performance ignorant audience members left cellphone calls unanswered for several rings, but Smiley and Eastwood worked around the interruptions to bring the gravity of their world into chilling focus.
‘Night, Mother runs until Dec. 2 at the Artword Theatre (75 Portland St.). $24, $18 for students (416) 366-7723.