"So we're just gonna sit here and talk for a couple of hours, and then you're going to kill yourself." Actress Sally Bondi, who plays Mama Thelma in the Alliance Theatre Lab's production of 'Night Mother, sums up the plot of this play by Marsha Norman (which was also made into a movie starring Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft in 1986) in a single, darkly humorous line.
Mother and daughter Jessie (played by Aubrey Shavonn Kessler) are about to spend a mundane evening together like any other in their small home in their small town, when Jessie, epileptic, divorcee, and mother of a dope fiend criminal, casually interjects that she plans to kill herself with her dead father's gun in a matter of hours. The rest of the play is a dialogue between the two actresses, a kind of unfair cat and mouse, where the mouse cheats the game by never sticking more than nose and whiskers out of its cavernous hole in the wall.
Before a simple backdrop of faded furniture, shelves of sweets, and boxy old appliances, the actresses slowly descend a spiral staircase from superficial bickering into deep and painful revelation. Kessler, her long dark hair pulled back from her bare and blank face, busily paces from cabinet to cabinet, straightening, folding, and organizing her mother's house before her departure.
She at first appears hurried, steely-eyed, and stoic; her demeanor, and actually even her face, closely resemble that of Chloe Sevigny's character "Nicki" in the HBO series Big Love. As time ticks by, though, the actress subtly, but successfully, displays a deep and painful sense of pointlessness and inadequacy.
Though both actresses were impressive, Bondi was purely astounding in her portrayal of a gritty, no-nonsense broad with a not-so-deeply hidden emotional underbelly. Her loping gate, slick head of curlers, dark under-eye circles and gravelly voice conveyed a simple woman who's been worn out by an uneventful and largely loveless life.
The evolution was imperceptible, but over the course of the 90-minute play, Bondi brought her character from inane white trash simpleton to anguished, mercurial matron. Our eyes were glued to her boxy, sweat-suit clad form as she shifted from sappy sweet pacifier to bitter, angry pot- and pan-thrower. She literally worked up a sweat as she wracked her brain for a way out of the hellish dilemma she'd found herself sucked into.
As she tried over and over again to strike an effective chord with her cruelly recalcitrant daughter, Bondi painted an awfully realistic portrait of a baffled and beaten woman. By the end of the production, we, along with many other patrons, were wrenched to tears by the emotional immensity of her performance.
The intimacy of Barry University's Pelican Theatre, coupled with the actresses' gripping work, made us feel as though we were locked into the convoluted debate along with the players. Smells of gunpowder and matches pervaded the 44-seat auditorium, adding to the effect.
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With the exception of rushed line delivery on the part of Kessler during the first 15 minutes, opening night of director David Sirois's presentation went off beautifully. Anyone who appreciates high quality small theater or psychological, emotional drama would be an absolute fool to miss this Alliance Theatre Lab production.
The play will run through September 25 and tickets cost $10 to $25. Go to alliancetheatrelab.com or call 305-259-0418.