Review: ’night, Mother, Chapel Off Chapel (VIC)

Jennifer Barry

Iron Lung’s all-female production foregrounds Marsha Norman’s taut script and impressive performances from the cast.
Review: ’night, Mother, Chapel Off Chapel (VIC)

Caroline Lee as Thelma and Esther Van Doornum as Jessie. Photo: Pia Johnson.

For middle-aged Jessie Cates, life has lost its lustre. Her husband has left her. Her runaway son is on a fast track to prison, and she’s living with her aging mother in a small house in isolated Middle America. She has no job, no prospect of getting one, and suffers from epilepsy. So, she casually informs her mother that she is going to kill herself.

This is where ’night, Mother begins and, for the next 90 minutes, the audience watches in real time as the increasingly desperate Thelma (Jessie’s mother) tries to thwart her daughter’s plan.

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Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Marsha Norman in 1981, ’night, Mother is a simple set-up for two actors. Mining the timeless concerns of familial dysfunction and existential anguish, this morbid narrative premise is the stuff of pure drama, guaranteed to wallop the emotions of anyone with a pulse.

Suicide is a topical issue in Australia right now. With the Prime Minister recently appointing a National Suicide Prevention Advisor and the Victorian government conducting a Royal Commission into Victoria’s mental health system, the presentation of ’night, Mother is, unfortunately, timely. It is testament to the sophistication of Norman’s script, which manages its difficult subject matter deftly, that even the most cynical audience member is likely to be drawn in despite any initial resistance to the emotionally manipulative artifice of the play’s premise. Nonetheless, it is worth declaring that this play can be tough to watch. Those feeling vulnerable, or who are particularly sensitive to the issue of suicide, may decide it’s not for them.

At the same time, one of the most redemptive themes of the play is the power of love. Watching Thelma’s frantic attempts at persuading her daughter of the folly of her plan, and her own strength in the face of isolation and futility, one cannot help but wonder at the capacity and durability of the human spirit. Showing our deep-seated need for love, for connecting with others and ourselves in ways that are enriching and meaningful, is at the core of ’night, Mother’s humanity and vitality.

The all-female Iron Lung production, directed by Briony Dunn, is a faithful presentation that foregrounds Norman’s taut script and the impressive performances of Esther Van Doornum (Jessie) and Caroline Lee (Thelma). Played out in the heart of the family home – the kitchen and living room – Juliette Whitney’s naturalistic set design offers a poignant familiarity that underscores the normalcy of the situation, as if this strange scene might be played out in homes anywhere. Clare Springett’s elegant lighting design supports the production’s naturalism, and the intimacy of The Loft Theatre enhances this sense of the domestic, making the emotional impact of this production even more visceral.

This is a polished production buoyed by the skilful and sensitive performances of Van Doornum and Lee. While this show won’t be for everyone, it offers a restorative reminder of the power of theatre to speak to humanity’s darkest moments and most basic saving graces.

4 stars out of 5 ★★★★

’night, Mother
Iron Lung Theatre
by Marsha Norman
Cast: Esther Van Doornum, Caroline Lee
Director: Briony Dunn
Set and Costume Design: Juliette Whitney
Lighting Designer: Clare Springett
Production Manager: Julia Landberg
8-17 August 2019
The Loft Theatre, Chapel Off Chapel, Prahran (VIC)
Tickets $27-$35

About the author

Jennifer Barry is a Melbourne-based theatre producer and arts manager with over 20 years’ experience in the Australian and US arts industries. She has a BA in Communications (Theatre/Media), and a Masters in Theatre Studies. She is currently undertaking post-graduate study in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne.