No theatrical enterprise is risk-free. But staged readings come close. They’re low-priced, come-as-you-are, one-night-only affairs. And actors can read plays too expensive to mount otherwise. Staged readings also have an added bonus — a “what if?” quality. What if you cast a play outside the box, or used actors in roles not written for their “type” just for the heck — or the art — of it?
Ion Theatre’s ’night, Mother began as a staged reading last November, as part of the company’s “Off the Radar” series of modern classics. Marsha Norman wrote the play for a white mother and daughter. Craig Noel Award–winners, and African-Americans, Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson and Yolanda Franklin read as Velma and Jesse Cates, and Glenn Paris directed the stage. Other than turning pages or sipping bottled water, there was little movement.
Thompson and Franklin really connected with the material and each other. Owing to the good graces of producing angels (the program names the profoundly generous Danah Fayman as “honorary producer”), Ion was able to mount a full production. The result is 90 minutes of first-class acting, intense interplay, deeply gouged emotions, and, surprisingly, humor.
It’s 8:15 on a Saturday night, a time most folks are out gallivanting or, as 19th-century American actor Joe Field put it, “sore in search of carnal pleasantries.” Instead, Velma “Mama” Cates and daughter Jesse are having a typical evening at home. Velma will knit. Jesse will do Velma’s nails. Maybe some hot cocoa and marshmallows later on.
But Jesse runs around nonstop, as if packing for a trip. She’s also loading her mother down with “to-do” lists: where to find the laundry soap; “Handi-Wipes and sponges go under the sink.” Jesse fills glass jars with red hot and sour ball candies and talks about Christmas presents for the next 20 years. One thing’s clear: Jesse has waited on her mother hand and foot and is now begging off.
That’s because Jesse will kill herself tonight. She tells Velma to spare her the shock and prepare for a life on her own. Jesse’s planned in such detail she even tells her mother what to say at the funeral service. Jesse’s so “motherly” the play’s title could work two ways.
Jesse makes her announcement early. Her exit cue: when she says “’night, Mother.” The rest of the 90-minute, Pulitzer Prize–winning play (1983) becomes, in part, a detective story: what has pushed Jesse so far? She hasn’t had an epileptic fit in a year; her memory’s coming around; her agoraphobia has eased. In fact, she hasn’t felt better in years.
’Night, Mother also becomes, in part, an extension of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be...” Velma cajoles, wrangles, whimpers, and finally explodes as she probes Jesse for reasons (and tries to determine where she went wrong). Velma argues for life. When Hamlet asks the question, it’s fairly clear he’ll “to be” as well. He isn’t ready to explore the “undiscovered country” and looks glad — or should — when Ophelia enters and derails his train of thought.
Beneath her obsession with order — she even rearranges napkins for their cocoa — Jesse has a cold, granite resolve. She made her choice. And she’s right when she tells her mother, and us, “You have no earthly idea how I feel.”
- ‘night, Mother, by Marsha Norman
- Ion Theatre, BLKBX, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
- Directed by Glenn Paris: cast: Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson, Yolanda Franklin; scenic design, Claudio Raygoza, Glenn Paris; lighting, Karin Filijan; properties, Dino Grulli; sound, Evan Kendig; costumes, Glenn Paris
- Playing through February 7: Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. 619-600-5020. iontheatre.com
The staged reading pitted two souls against each other. The full production adds a much-needed dimension: mundanity. Claudio Raygoza and Glenn Paris’s set, the Cates’ kitchen/living room, must have 100 homey details — what you would call “stuff” and wouldn’t look at twice. But for Velma and Jesse, an object evokes memories or issues and a passing of the torch. The contrast between the everyday and the ultimate question is striking.
As are Thompson and Franklin. As Velma, Thompson talks as much as Jesse moves about (in the process, Velma creates a hilarious character, Agnes, who burns houses and wears multiple whistles around her neck, and who provides much needed comic relief). Thompson has what you might call a “vocal arc” as she moves deftly, heartbreakingly through the stages of letting go.
Jesse never talked much before tonight. Along with an immobile sense of commitment to Jesse’s choice, and an eerie inner calm, Franklin effectively shows that words are almost new to the woman for whom the bedroom door will be her finish line.
On Monday, February 9, 2015, the San Diego Theater Critics Circle will host our annual Craig Noel Award ceremony at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 700 Prospect Street, La Jolla, from 6 to 10 p.m. Along with awards in 23 categories, a Craig Noel will go to Actor of the Year (male and female), Producer of the Year, Outstanding Young Actor, and the Don Braunagel Award for Outstanding Work by a Small Theater Company.
Admission is free, but reservations are required. To add your name to the list, contact Critics Circle President Pam Kragen at 760-529-4906 or email [email protected].