The Column Online



by Marsha Norman

Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre

Directed by Allen Walker
Assistant Director – Doug Parker
Set Design – Bryan S. Douglas
Lighting Design – Bryan S. Douglas
Sound Design – Allen Walker
Costume Design – Hannah Bell
Props Design – Don Gwynne
Stage Manager – Olivia Dickerson

Cynthia Matthews – Thelma Cates
Tracie Foster – Jessie Cates

Reviewed Performance: 9/14/2019

Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Night, Mother by Marsha Norman won a Pulitzer in 1983 by putting the audience into the story in the first few minutes with a declaration about suicide, but then strings them along to see if it actually happens. This one-act play produced by Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre in the Sanders black box in Fort Worth had two actors playing a mother and daughter who live together in a dysfunctional relationship. In time though, family secrets come out and explain the daughter's motivation to quit on her life. But this unfolds in slow motion.

Allen Walker directed the production team to support a powerful, if uncomfortable, drama. Bryan S. Douglas designed an integrated living room and kitchen where almost all action occurred, lit the set with an unchanging color plot that lent a gloomy early 80's rural house atmosphere, and Walker added a bit of sound effect along with a few musical pieces. Hannah Bell designed minimal costumes that stood up to the impact the actors had to play. A bit drab, loose, homemaker gear, fit both characters. There were dozens of household props you'd see in any well-lived house added by Don Gwynne, which were critical to the script, as most all actions by both characters related to household chores, arranging and organizing these props, cooking and eating, all of the normal things people do. And the actors touched almost all of these props with their stage business.

Cynthia Matthews played Thelma Cates, the mother. Her old farm house is left over from a marriage and a lifetime with her now-deceased husband. She's aging and needs her daughter's household help, but this strains them both. Thelma is Pollyanna about the challenges and heartaches of her life and chooses to ignore realities to keep things smooth. Matthews had to dig deeply into this character to find some complexity beyond the surface. Her character was faced with a life-altering challenge no parent would want, but she found a way to show her character in this death spiral to save her daughter. Most characters in drama are faced with obstacles that either stop them from getting something they want or suddenly threatens their existence. This was certainly true of Thelma. Matthews had to play the deepest kind of parental challenge, the loss of a child. Through the arc of Thelma's story, Matthews slowly took on each new reality and realization that this was no joke and she dug deeper to find levels of hurt and fear. Thelma tries literally every tactic a parent might do to stop Jessie's death. One thing that is often embedded into ultimately horrible experiences is moments of humor and Marsha Norman wrote these into dialog. So we saw Matthews on a roller coaster of emotional outbursts, punctuated with momentary quips, as Thelma tries desperately to face her challenge.

Tracie Foster took on the role of Jessie Cates. This daughter lives with her mother, partly to help her deal with daily life, but also because she is unable to handle her own life. Her epilepsy has a worsening diagnosis, though she hasn't had an episode for some time, but the fear induced in others around her has driven her to search for a reason to live, with no success. People who have life-long diseases often either find an heroic survival story in themselves or fall into depression and a willingness to consider the end of life. Jessie Cates fits into the latter case. But she has other reasons to question the value of life and these are revealed in the story. The question that challenges an audience is whether these constitute a reason to quit on life. A majority would say no, but it's more complicated than that.

Foster had the challenge of creating a Jessie who contemplated this final solution to a hard life and decides it is what she wants, but the danger for Foster was that she would portray Jessie as morose or mentally unbalanced. Foster was able to show Jessie as a normal human dealing with big problems, with no prospects for success. Epilepsy is only the proximate cause. She has a failed marriage to a man she loves. She has a son who's in jail. She recognizes that people don't come visit her mother because of her. And she reads the papers and, well, life sucks! So suicide seems the best solution. This is often true of people who consider suicide – there doesn't seem to be any other solution. But the ludicrous nature of this story is that Jessie seems perfectly normal, with a relatively happy life. Foster seems happy in this role. Jessie jokes. She organizes the house around her mother's outbursts. She cautions, prepares and sets everything so her mother can carry on afterwards. She even coaches her mother on what to do and say when it happens. This is not a character we imagine contemplating killing herself and yet Foster makes it so with ease and seeming comfort about her decision. In her final hours, Jessie is more concerned for her mother than herself.

But these characters are dealing with much more than suicide. There are family lies, untold stories, secrets from the past, and the pall of suicide is only the trigger that unveils these. Matthews and Foster must play the majority of their text in high volume through direct conflict over painful and surprising revelations about family history.

This subject may scare people away from seeing this show. That's a shame. I had a difficult time getting someone to attend it with me. People usually imagine the idea of suicide as being scary, horrid, and too difficult to deal with in something so intimate as a live play. That's human nature and understandable, but it's not true in this story.

Night, Mother is not depressing in the sense we imagine. It's not really even about suicide, though that's the primary story arc and it peeks into the psyche of a suicide. I believe it's really about how we treat each other. It's about treating people with problems sensitively. There's a critical message about hiding family secrets, especially to children who always sense something is wrong, and trying to cover over skeletons in the closet. It says something important about always being truthful. That's a lost art these days.

Most people create and strongly believe their judgements about why others choose their actions. But that too is a serious dysfunction between people. I think the most powerful message I saw was in a full-page ad in the playbill for this show. A realtor, Susan Krus, said, "Everyone you meet is fighting a battle that you know nothing about. Be kind. Always." That was the most ennobling message of this play.

Night, Mother plays at the Sanders through September 29. Take a chance. This play will touch you and probably open your eyes about the meaning of your life, certainly the plight of people who can't handle theirs.

Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre
Fort Worth Community Arts Center in the Sanders Theatre
1300 Gendy St., Fort Worth, TX 76107

Runs through September 29th
Friday and Saturday night at 8pm
Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2pm

Friday and Saturday evening - $20 for adults (discounts available).
Saturday and Sunday matinee - $18 for adults (discounts available).

For information and tickets, go to or call -682-231-0082.