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.