It's a 'normal' Saturday evening in the Cates's home where mother and daughter, Thelma and Jessie, live out a rather mundane, humdrum existence. As the play starts, Mama is cataloguing the stocks of sweets which need replenishing. She seems happy enough, but her repetitive world is about to be painfully shattered. For her daughter Jessie has made a monumental decision - she's going to kill herself. As she casually asks the whereabouts of her father's revolver, there's a sense of disquiet about what might be about to happen. But it's not until Jessie makes her intentions explicit - only a few minutes into the play - that the alarm bells ring as we understand this is going to be a Saturday night like no other, because at the end of it, Jessie will be dead.
As the pieces of this jig-saw snap into place, we realise that Jessie has planned her demise in meticulous detail - she's even had her mother's dress cleaned ready for her funeral, and has a box of ordinary things to bequeath to her mother and the rest of the family. Even so, Marsha Norman's script manages to keep us guessing as to the final outcome - or maybe its just our hope that Jessie’s plans will be thwarted.
It's hard not to laugh during this play because there's a rich vein of humour running right the way through it. But it's the kind of humour where you laugh and then immediately feel guilty as you remember the seriousness of the situation glaring at you from the stage. The humour mostly comes from Mama. For example, describing her daughter she says “You’re as normal as they come, for the most part”.
Mama tries all manner of devices to dissuade Jessie from her plan. "I'll sing 'til morning to keep you alive", she says. And even suggests - clutching at straws one suspects - they get a new dog. But when persuasion fails, she's equally quick to blame: “You're miserable and it's your own sweet fault", she tells Jessie, “Good times don't come looking for you!”
Jessie though, seems immune to pleas and emotional devices. She’s set on a path because she’s realised that she has more power than she had thought. For once, she’s in control and she’s not going to waver now she knows she has it. “This is how I have my say”, she says. “I can get off the bus … it’s my stop whenever I like”.
For many critics, this is a play about a failed mother-daughter relationship. And it is striking, though unsurprising, that these two women rarely touch each other, even in the midst of a life and death situation. They brush hands briefly at one point, and at another juncture, Mama grabs Jessie’s hands, but it's tentative and desperate and we know it's too little too late.
'I should have just left you a note', says Jessie, whereupon Mama finally breaks down knowing she's lost the battle and screaming 'Yes' at the top of her voice.
Both Fiona Douglas as Jessie and Diana Volpe as Mama produce exceptionally moving and convincing performances. Douglas gives us a quiet, humourless and efficient dignity as Jessie the 'runt' (her father's description of her shortly after she was born). On the other hand, Volpe's Mama has a terrier-like tenacity to her character intent on maintaining the status quo and perpetuating her own existence as long as she can. The whole thing is admirably woven together with some subtle and sensitive direction from Canadian Director, Robert Tsonos.
Marsha Norman's play won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 though its success divided the critics. There are those who say it is adequate but not great, though most reviews have been complimentary about the play’s honesty and realism. In fact, it's not just a different slant on the difficult issue of suicide, but takes in a broad sweep of themes such as the burdens of illness and being 'different', as well as the rights and responsibilities of families, individuals and society at large. And it also poses the highly significant and contentious question of whether suicide can be a ‘solitary act’. At the end of the play, we’re certainly left feeling sympathy for both characters – but it’s Mama who’s left to make the phone calls. For me, it is a great play, because like all great dramatic works, it leaves one with more questions than answers, yet along the way manages to captivate and forcefully hold attention for the full 90 minutes of its course, whilst wrestling with emotionally complex, unsettling and provocative issues. But then this is a fine production that more than does justice to Norman’s play, and as such is highly recommended.