You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Night, Mother

About halfway through "'night, Mother," long after she reveals her intention to kill herself, the character played by Edie Falco says to her mother, "You have no earthly idea how I feel." Those words are probably as true for the audience as they are for the woman to whom they are spoken, played with wrenching despair by Brenda Blethyn.

Thelma Cates - Brenda Blethyn Jessie Cates - Edie Falco

This review was updated at 6:31 p.m.

About halfway through “‘night, Mother,” long after she reveals her intention to kill herself, the character played by Edie Falco says to her justifiably panicked mother, “You have no earthly idea how I feel.” Those words are probably as true for the audience as they are for the woman to whom they are spoken, played with wrenching despair by Brenda Blethyn. Even truer is her mother’s reply: “Well, how could I? You’re real far back there, Jessie. What’s it like over there, where you are?” In director Michael Mayer’s emotionally uncentered revival of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize winner, no real answers to that question are provided.

Marsha Norman’s tough two-hander has always been distinguished by its resolute refusal to go soft or sentimental on its characters, despite the night of hell they’re going through. But while it’s clearly part of the actress’ and director’s design, Falco’s systematically closed-off, shut-down, numbly detached performance keeps her suicidal character Jessie Cates a frustratingly opaque figure, making it possible to invest in her fate only through its impact on her mother.

Falco is a subtle, intelligent actress. On “The Sopranos,” her quietly illuminating insights into a deeply conflicted woman make Carmela Soprano as much the heart of the iconic New Jersey Mob family series as her husband, Tony. Here, however, she’s anonymous to the point of illegibility, never fully persuading us that Jessie is a woman who has run out of alternatives. In choosing to play the character as an emotional blank, Falco pushes Norman’s intentions to unsatisfying extremes.

“‘night, Mother” marks the second time Falco has stepped into a part patented by Kathy Bates, following her last Broadway stint in “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.” The prickly vulnerability of Terrence McNally’s Frankie was a good fit for Falco. But in her similarly drabbed-down Jessie, thesp so successfully constructs a wall around the intractable character that when, after more than an hour onstage, she reveals glimmers of anger, emotion and tenderness for her mother, they come too late to make her accessible.

Unfolding in an intermissionless 90 minutes in the open-plan kitchen and living room of designer Neil Patel’s expansively ordinary ’70s-modern home, the play begins with Jessie methodically putting the house in order, tossing out the first clue to her intentions when she casually asks her widowed mother, Thelma, “Where’s Daddy’s gun?”

Almost as if she’s outlining plans to take a vacation, Jessie matter-of-factly explains that right after giving her mother a manicure, she intends to lock herself in her bedroom and take her own life. What follows is an extended struggle that’s less about Jessie explaining her reasons than about her mother understanding them.

In such a verbal, physically static play, the amount of fascinating detail packed into Jessie’s preparations provides a compelling focus. Mayer ably harnesses this aspect as Falco shifts purposefully around the stage — gathering old towels and plastic trash bags to minimize the mess of her suicide, restocking cupboards, replacing the freshly washed cover on the living room sofa or refilling candy jars with an assortment of treats to satisfy her mother’s sweet tooth.

This abundance of candy serves not only as a bitter irony in a scenario stripped of sweetness but as an indicator of Thelma’s childlike nature. Grasping for reasons to make Jessie’s life worth living, she suggests taking up crochet, getting a dog or a job, rearranging the furniture, even buying new dishes. Eager at first to shrug off any blame for Jessie’s drastic decision, she only gradually begins to examine her role in her daughter’s prolonged depression, a state Thelma busily ignored, the same way she refused for years to acknowledge and treat Jessie’s epilepsy.

Blethyn’s complex perf sheds almost as much light on the causes of Jessie’s pain, fatigue and sadness as Falco does. Thelma is a needy woman, selfish but not ungiving, neither strong nor smart, and she could easily be just an annoying ninny. But Blethyn infuses the character with humor and achingly human weakness, her refusal to believe or accept Jessie’s decision giving way to heartrending desperation and anger as she slowly comes to grasp the seriousness of it.

Watching Blethyn shuffle about, wracked with silent sobs as she stoops to pick up a manicure tray moments after sweeping it to the floor in a tantrum, gives some indication of what a searing emotional experience this could have been. The British thesp also maintains a credible Southern accent; Falco’s is more erratic.

Norman’s stage directions indicate that the time is the present. But while Mayer has contemporized the action with minor touches such as a cordless phone or a mention of the situation in North Korea (the characters also have quit smoking since their original incarnation), he fails to address the fundamental issue of antidepression medication, now far more prevalent than when the play was written. Surely even in the rural South one can get Prozac.

While the approach feels wrong, there’s an admirable consistency in Falco’s interpretation and its refusal to seek sympathy. Bruised and deflated by life and its disappointments — a husband who dumped her, a criminally inclined son who inherited her mistrust of the world, even by her own distancing personality — her Jessie has achieved a kind of peace bordering on elation with her identification of an exit.

“Dead is dead quiet,” Jessie says. And, to an extent, the sense of peace she achieves from that approaching quiet validates her harsh disengagement even from the pain she’s inflicting on her mother as she moves toward a choice about which the playwright and the director remain steadfastly nonjudgmental.

'Night, Mother

Royale Theater, 1,103 Seats; $85 Top

Production: A Fox Theatricals, Harbor Entertainment, East of Doheny, the Araca Group, Terry Schnuck, Amanda Dubois, Ruth Hendel, Hal Goldberg, Wisenfeld/Meyer presentation of a play in one act by Marsha Norman. Directed by Michael Mayer.

Crew: Sets, Neil Patel; costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; production stage manager, James Harker. Reviewed Nov. 11, 2004. Opened Nov. 14. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast: Thelma Cates - Brenda Blethyn Jessie Cates - Edie Falco

More Scene

  • DF-10956_R – Gwilym Lee (Brian May) and

    'Bohemian Rhapsody' Producer Confirms Bryan Singer's Reason for Leaving, Says 'No One' Was Attached to Play Mercury

    “Bohemian Rhapsody” producer Graham King provided insight into some of the events surrounding the Golden Globe-winning film Saturday at the Producers Guild Awards Nominees Breakfast, including director Bryan Singer’s departure from the film partway through production. “It’s an unfortunate situation, with like 16, 17 days to go and Bryan Singer just had some issues, his [...]

  • Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce

    Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce GLAAD Media Award Nominations

    Mj Rodriguez and Nico Santos are set to announce the nominees for the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards. The “Pose” star and “Crazy Rich Asians” funny man will make the announcement during a live-stream hosted by AT&T and from the AT&T Hello Lounge at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 25. “The images and stories recognized [...]

  • Emile Hirsch, Matt SmileyEmile Hirsch hosts

    Emile Hirsch Hosts Smiley Face Art Opening at Mondrian Hotel

    Despite the rain on Wednesday night in West Hollywood, there were plenty of smiles inside the Mondrian hotel thanks to artist Matt Smiley‘s Refresh exhibition. Not only is Smiley his real last name, but several of his paintings and other pieces in the exhibit feature smiley faces. “I’ve seen more smiley symbolism lately, and I’ve [...]

  • Randall Park, left, and Constance Wu

    Constance Wu Wants Her 'Fresh Off the Boat' Co-Star Randall Park to Host the Oscars

    While the Academy may have decided to go hostless for this year’s Oscars, that doesn’t mean the rest of Hollywood has stopped thinking about who would be a good choice for the emceeing gig. Former host Whoopi Goldberg recently suggested Ken Jeong. Jeong said, when he was a guest on “The View,” Goldberg told him [...]

  • 'Schitt's Creek' Stars Reveal Dream Guest

    'Schitt's Creek' Cast Reveals Dream Guest Stars: Oprah, Beyonce and ...

    “Schitt’s Creek” has big dreams. Dan Levy, who stars as David on the series, says his wish list of guest stars includes Oprah, Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Gwyneth Paltrow. “All for different reasons, none of whom we’ll get,” he cracked at the Critics’ Choice Awards. For those who haven’t caught on to the “Schitt’s Creek” [...]

  • Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bundchen

    Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bündchen to Be Honored at UCLA Science Gala

    Science can be very glamorous. It certainly will be during Oscar week on Feb. 21 when the UCLA Institute of the Environment & Sustainability (IoES) honors Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bündchen for environmental activism at its annual Hollywood for Science Gala. “When I moved to LA, the air was unbreathable. Rivers were catching fire in [...]

  • Don Cheadle and Andrew Rannells Black

    Don Cheadle, Andrew Rannells Talk Snorting 'Coke' on 'Black Monday'

    “Black Monday” show creators David Caspe and Jordan Cahen divulged an intriguing detail to come later in the first season of the new Showtime comedy at its world premiere, held at the Theatre at Ace Hotel on Monday night in Los Angeles. “The fourth or fifth episode opens with a sexual harassment seminar, which very well [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content