Nearly 30 years ago this play won a Pulitzer Prize on Broadway and received a very successful UK premiere at this very theatre in 1985. It was the breakthrough work of the playwright Marsha Norman. But how well does it stand up in revival?
It is a two-hander between a widowed mother, Thelma, and daughter, Jessie, set in real-time in an isolated homestead in the rural USA. In the opening minutes the daughter announces her intention to commit suicide and as she explains herself to her parent, she methodically prepares the house, ticking off all the tasks that her mother will need to take over from thereon out. In the course of the next hour or so we learn more of the background story of each character – how Jessie has suffered from depression and epilepsy for much of her life, how her mother tried to ignore or minimise the issues, and Jessie’s unhappy marriage (arranged misguidedly by her mother), and the unfortunate outcome for Jessie’s son, who has lapsed into delinquency.
Rural America, epilepsy, depression, and family secrets – this is potentially rich material, akin to themes treated by Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee; but the writer’s approach to the issues and development of the dialogue lacks the rhetorical power of the former or the psychological penetration of the latter. The engagement between the characters operates on a low gas and therefore you never really get to care about them or the issues at stake. While the pros and cons of suicide, including its effects on others, are discussed you rarely get the sense that this is more than a debate as opposed to a life and death struggle. There is a good scattering of incidental humour, and a lot of skilful stage business to provide a visual dimension; but now lacking the power to shock which must have been part of its success in the 1980s, the whole comes over as underpowered.
You cannot fault the effort and care that has gone into the production. Designer Ti Green has produced a set that is beautifully detailed on the one hand and opened up expansively across the whole width of the stage. While the interiors are cluttered as a deliberate statement there is more than enough space within which the actors can manoeuvre, and everyone is quite at ease with the multiplicity of domestic props whose use punctuates the action.
Likewise, the quality of the acting is very fine though the emotional range of both players is not really tested here. Stockard Channing is always a compelling performer but there is little opportunity for her characteristic feistiness to show through except in a few monologues where her control of pace and tone demonstrates rare skill. Rebecca Night has an even more taxing task in bringing Jessie to plausible life. Once the low-key determination of the character is made clear there are not many other emotional registers she is allowed to explore. While it may be the case that such an attitude is typical of suicides in their final phase it does not make for compelling drama especially when the only real explanation we get is limited to this: ‘I am just not having a very good time and I don’t have any reason to think it’ll get anything but worse. I’m tired. I’m. I’m sad. I feel used.’
While the press night audience watched out the evening in respectful attention, the muted response at the end suggests this play has not aged very well.
- By Marsha Norman
- Director: Roxana Silbert
- Photography by Marc Brenner
- Leading Performers: Stockard Channing and Rebecca Night
- Hampstead Theatre
- Until: 4 December 2021,
- Time: 1 hr 20 mins, no interval