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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Disintangling the Ties that Bind

“Let me go!” 

That impassioned cry from a daughter to her mother ignites a pivotal moment in Marsha Norman’s celebrated drama, ‘Night, Mother.

Her anguished plea illuminates the central conflict of this award-winning play currently onstage at the Anacostia Playhouse, under the sensitive and insightful direction of Deidra Starnes, with stage management by Denise Richards.   

Lezlie Hatcher plays Jessie, the adult daughter who for years has lived with and cared for her widowed mother Thelma, played by Patricia Williams-Dugueye. Their lives have settled into a bland and numbing routine in the house they share following the failure of the younger woman’s apparently loveless marriage. 

For Jessie, this modest home, aptly designed by April Joy and adroitly lit by Jerrett Harrington (who also provided sound design), is a grim prison that holds her trapped. 

It’s a dwelling filled with resignation and disappointments where Jessie and her mother drift through lives that have for years locked them in a drab daily grind – one which has done nothing but fueled Jessie’s deep depression.

A prisoner of her circumstances, dressed in character-defining costumes by Alison Joy, Jessie longs to escape from this painful existence where duty and disillusionment have thwarted both her dreams and ambitions. Her only hope is to get away, and in a last-ditch effort for redemption, she resolves to leave her life of obligation and family ties that bind. 

Carefully planning her escape, Jessie is busily making lists, arranging a support network and stocking provisions to ensure that her mother is not left feeling abandoned. Inevitably, that is exactly what happens, when this flurry of energy and purpose does not go unnoticed by Thelma, who senses that her daughter is up to something.  

The familiar role-reversal that often leaves a child to care for a parent has deepened from a routine into a rut for both of them. But once Jessie finally reveals her intention to depart, Thelma begins an assault on those plans which to her clearly threaten her own future and security.

Using every manipulative tactic at her command, Thelma strives to change her daughter’s mind. The intense battle of wills that results leads both the characters and the audience on an emotional rollercoaster through secrets, resentments, threats, accusations and revelations. 

As the play progresses, Director Starnes carefully ratchets up the intensity. Mother and daughter are well-matched …and well acquainted with each other’s weaknesses. Jessie’s loneliness and bitter, defeated disillusionment contrast with her mother’s confusion, disbelief, anger and fear. The former’s imminent departure is made particularly sad and painful by the clear reality that, underneath their spats and sparring, the two of them do actually love each other.

Lest this all seem too heavy, it must be noted that Starnes has wisely steered her cast to find the humor among the mundane details and quirks inevitable when two people have lived together and known each other so long. Their seasoned but prickly relationship and banter regularly sent the audience chuckling with amusement and recognition.

Nor will the outcome of this battle of wills be revealed here. That journey’s destination is best left to unfold for audiences at the play’s conclusion, with a moving, ultimately inevitable resolution to an engrossing evening of theater filled with life’s twists and turns.

Kudos to Anacostia Playhouse Executive Artistic Director Stephawn Stephens and his entire team, for this ambitious and rewarding latest installment in an exciting season.

‘Night, Mother continues through May 13, 2023.  Additional information, performance schedules and tickets are available on the theater’s website:  www.anacostiaplayhouse.org

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