'Night, Mother

For most folks, the natural reaction to a suicide is one of horror. We've all gone through some tough times and most of us manage to pull out of them; but for some, the light at the end of the tunnel has been extinguished.

In Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning play from 1983, we partake in one of many ways in which debilitating emotional, psychological, and spiritual conditions lead to hopelessness.

(Left to right) Emma Messenger as Thelma Cates
and Haley Johnson as Jessie Cates
Photo: DenverMind Media
Director Billie McBride sets the story in the present, somewhere in the Midwest. Thelma Cates (Emma Messenger), a sugar junkey (the only edible mentioned during the entire evening, other than coffee), is being cared for by her daughter, Jesse (Hayley Johnson), who drops a bomb right off the top, in the first scene: she's going to end her life this very evening.

Like Greek tragedy, the art of this impressively told story lies not in the destination, but in the voyage.

(Left to right) Emma Messenger
as Thelma Cates
and Haley Johnson as Jessie Cates
Photo: DenverMind Media
As mother and daughter's discussion ensues, we see that Thelma has, in her rollercoaster glucose fog, heretofore supressed recognition of her daughter's challenges—epilepsy, joblessness, and divorce, for openers—while caught in the endless subconscious loops of her own dramas, beginning with her loveless marriage.

Messenger's immersion in Thelma's personal echo chamber is something to behold, convincing us that she is, at first, clueless as to Jesse's dead-set focus on leaving this world; and later, when the realization hits her, shaken to her core. But the central riddle is Jesse, and Johnson's performance deftly lays bare her motivations.

(Left to right) Haley Johnson as Jessie Cates
and Emma Messenger as Thelma Cates
Photo: DenverMind Media
As Norman's script has it, Jesse is matter-of-fact about her plans. She has a long to-do list of reminders for Thelma ("Mama") to follow after she's gone, and her self-analysis of her condition is shockingly honest. How could her plan be so rational? Despite a few last minute open-ended questions and a couple of shouting matches, Johnson never takes her eyes off the prize: silencing Jesse's demons. The power of Norman's piece is that we are as powerless as Thelma to stop her.

There are so many factors that can create such a state orf mind: genetics, chemistry, abuse, bad luck, and, of course, the psychopathology of the ruling elite and their depraved manipulation of larger events (just look at the suicide rate in the U.S. military); yet, regardless of the source, our sense of loss is unabated.

Vintage Theatre's presentation of 'Night, Mother runs through June 14th. For tickets: 303-856-7830 or

Bob Bows

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