The Strand Theater Company, Baltimore’s company dedicated to telling stories by and about women, opens its 11th season with “‘Night, Mother,” a play that opens with the daughter, Jessie, telling her mother, Thelma, that she’s planning to kill herself that night. By the show’s emotional climax, it’s clear Thelma is one of the reasons Jessie has come to such a decision.
The production team, including director Anne Hammontree and artistic director Elena Kostakis, takes great care when addressing the emotionally charged topic of suicide, which the play tackles head on. Kostakis’ preshow curtain speech on opening night included a trigger warning and acknowledgment of printed materials in the lobby and the presence of mental health professionals in the audience for anyone who needed to talk after the show.
The tension stays throughout the 90-minute play, thanks to committed performances by Andrea Bush, as Jessie, and Kathryn Falcone, as Thelma, and a taut pace set by Hammontree’s direction. Bush’s Jessie matter-of-factly tells Thelma of her plans to take her own life and maintains a calm resolve for much of the evening. But she wavers when the two women fall back into their ingrained routine of criticism and disappointment—anger, resentment and exasperation overflow when Thelma pushes Jessie to be more social or tells her that she is the reason no one wants to visit their home.
Jessie, who moved in with her widowed mother after her divorce, is an epileptic who has suffered from clinical depression for most of her life and has a son who, it is implied, is a drug addict and/or regularly in prison. Thelma is a simple country woman who also had a loveless marriage and no prospects, but seems much more content to settle and enjoy what she can—candy, gossiping with her neighbor.
Jessie has created a meticulous to-do list for her last night on earth that includes refilling Thelma’s candy jar, making sure Thelma knows how to do laundry and enjoying a cup of her mama’s hot chocolate. But, as you can imagine, things do not go as planned. Thelma bristles at the suggestion she doesn’t know how to keep her own house, and Jessie remembers that she never liked the taste of Thelma’s hot chocolate. The women’s relationship is hopeless, even with the knowledge that these are the last moments they’ll have together.
It is very much a roller coaster, with each actor skillfully delivering a spectrum of emotions. Falcone shines in explosive moments when Thelma’s raw disgust with Jessie rages, throwing pots and pans in one scene, and in another, giving Jessie the final push off the edge into a bedroom where she follows through with her decision to kill herself. Bush lives in Jessie’s resolute, deeply sad character, and is heartbreaking when she exposes glimmers of hope that her mother unintentionally, yet swiftly squelches.
“‘Night, Mother” is not an easy play to present or to watch, but The Strand Theater’s adaptation is a thoughtful, well-acted production that honors the work and the company’s mission.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission