The catalyst for this remarkable transformation? Stray Dog Theatre's production of Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother, as wrenching a declaration of life's great worth as a play about suicide can be. Director Gary F. Bell and his cast of two, Donna Weinsting and Kim Furlow, have vaulted into the realm of alchemy with this. Through word and gesture, they attempt the transmutation of the soul, and succeed.
As Jessie, a middle-aged divorcée who suffers equally from epilepsy and the actions of her criminal son, Furlow radiates an exhausted, gelatinous compliance. Unable to hold a job or obtain a driver's license, Jessie is a prisoner in her mother's home. She's standoffish and brooding, and because her epilepsy is triggered by extreme emotion, she stifles any anger or excitement or happiness she might feel. Speaking in carefully modulated tones brushed with a soft Southern accent, Jessie matter-of-factly tells her mother, Thelma, that at the end of this evening she'll shoot herself with her father's gun.
Weinsting's Thelma is by turns slightly dotty, coldly cruel and desperate to keep Jessie from going through with her plan. As Jessie runs down her checklist of things to do on this last night together — how to order groceries, where the twist ties are — Thelma cajoles and fights to convince her daughter to live. "If you got the guts to kill yourself, you got the guts to live," goes one such exchange. Thelma barks it out, then her hand goes to her mouth, as if she wishes she could push it back in. Her eyes dart birdlike from side to side, and her breath comes in sharp gasps — she's so wild and lost that she explodes into a little run, pinballing across the room with anxiety. But as with everything in her life, Jessie patiently swallows Thelma's arguments, allowing them to sink into her and disappear with nary a ripple. When the conversation becomes too difficult, Jessie fingers the bottom button on her sweater and looks away; when she approaches anger, Jessie rubs her thighs methodically, a long-held ritual that helps her push the feeling away. It's as demonstrative as she can allow herself to be.
Without giving it away, 'night, Mother turns on a bravura scene that requires both women to quietly and consistently fail to connect. Jessie explains unflinchingly the great failure of her life, and she restates her intent to kill herself. As the scene unfolds, Furlow's head slowly rises, her spine straightens, and her voice is tinged with something other than resignation — in another person, it could be happiness. Weinsting sits on the sofa, a blasted shell of a person with a thousand-mile stare. Neither is aware of the other, each lost in her own lonely world.
And when it's all over, the audience sits in exhausted silence. Furlow and Weinsting have to come back out twice to reassure us they're both still among the living. And then the room tilts wildly to one side, and the audience roils toward director Gary Bell. We want to talk about what we've seen, but mostly we want to say something and hear a human voice in response. We want to know other people exist and we want to feel alive, and to share that feeling with others who know what the absence of that feeling would mean.