BWW Reviews: Powerful Acting Makes CoHo's 'NIGHT, MOTHER a Must See

BWW Reviews: Powerful Acting Makes CoHo's 'NIGHT, MOTHER a Must See

I spent a great deal of time this week at my day job coordinating our efforts to participate in Spirit Day, the annual anti-bullying event. I wore my purple shirt to work, got up and spoke to my coworkers, and helped organize a group photo that was circulated throughout the company. I remember my own years as a miserable, bullied, suicidal teenager in a small Midwestern town, and I want to do whatever I can to support kids who are living through that hell right now.

That may seem like a bizarre lead-in to a theater review, but my efforts on Spirit Day were very much on my mind as I watched CoHo's production of Marsha Norman's 'Night, Mother. There isn't an event to help people like Jessie, one of the two characters in the piece. Jessie is fortyish, divorced, with a grown son who's turned to petty crime. She lives with her mother, Thelma, in a small house in a remote location. (There are no specifics given about where the story takes place, nor any clues as to when it's set, though it truly could be anywhere in America and any year after the invention of television.) Jessie is unable to work or drive a car due to her epilepsy, and her days are mostly spent smoking and trying to understand how the world works. Lately, she's decided that she doesn't want to go on, and she announces that fact to her mother near the beginning of the play.

Of course Thelma doesn't want her daughter to commit suicide, and she spends the next ninety minutes coming up with arguments to dissuade Jessie from her choice, but Jessie has already considered nearly every argument. She has a list of things to accomplish before she does the deed - things her mother needs to know, like when the grocer delivers and how the washing machine works - and she's determined to get them done no matter what Thelma says.

And that's the play. It seems simple, but there are a lot of complicated things going on below the surface. Thelma and Jessie have a messy relationship, and there are a lot of questions both women have for each other. Some get answered and some don't. Norman doesn't stack the deck; she makes both women's arguments for and against Jessie's choice lucid and thoughtful, and you find yourself agreeing with both of them during the ninety-minute play. (It takes place in real time - there's a clock on the wall - and there is no intermission.)

It takes two brilliant women to make this play work. They can't condescend to the characters, or overact, and they have to be equally matched. Dana Millican makes Jessie almost clinically focused on her task, seemingly unemotional and decisive, but the pain eventually boils over. She tones down her beauty, looking pale and uninterested in her appearance, and she gives us just a hint of the warmth Jessie is reluctant to share with others. Jacklyn Maddux takes a different tack as Thelma, seeming like everyone's doting grandma at first, fussing over trivialities, but we see the bitterness and anger underneath her folksy exterior.

The two actresses never hit a false note, and they're completely in sync with each other. Director Gavin Hoffman has built an excellent production around them, with the designers creating a plain but simple set that looks like a middle-class living room, with small touches and details that give us hints about Jessie and Thelma's lives. Hoffman keeps the tone just right; it never descends into TV-movie bathos or screaming. It all works beautifully, and at the end of the play the audience was completely still. No sound, no movement, no applause. Just pure, stunned silence until the two actresses returned to take their well-deserved bows.

Now I have a question for all of you: CoHo is one of the best theaters in town. Dana Millican and Jacklyn Maddux are gifted actresses whose resumes are filled with fine performances. Why on earth were there only twenty-five people at the Saturday night performance I attended? Come on, Portland. To quote Arthur Miller, attention must be paid. 'Night, Mother may be a difficult play, but it's a brilliant one, and brilliance is never depressing. Don't miss this show.

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