'Night Mother by Marsha Norman

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BBC World Service/ LA Theatreworks (2006)

This Pulitzer Prize-winning drama focuses on Thelma Cates (Katharine Helmond) and her daughter Jess (Sharon Gless), a forty-something divorcee with a son in prison. Jess has reached the end of her tether and wants to commit suicide: everything has been meticulously planned, even down to the list of duties for her mother and a list of friendly neighbours, should she run into trouble. The only snag is that Jess has not yet broken the news to Thelma. Norman’s play focuses on what happens once she does. It is a two-hander constructed as a series of games, as Thelma begins by treating the news as a joke, but gradually realizes that Jess means business. ‘Night Mother ends with Jess going into a locked room and ending her life.


The play hits the listener like an emotional battering-ram. While Jess remains unwavering in her desire to die, she cannot help but reflect on the failings of her life; her epilepsy that transformed her into an emotional cripple, and her shortcomings in bringing up her son. Thelma comes across as fundamentally self-centred; while providing Jess with a roof over her head, she worries primarily about what will happen to her once her daughter has died. How will she cope with the experience of living along in a cold empty house? And what does Jess’s decision say about Thelma’s capabilities as a parent? Nevertheless we do not blame her for thinking like this: when Jess was young, Thelma tried to protect her by withholding the information that she was epileptic. The mother always hoped her daughter would lead a ‘normal’ life. However things have not turned out as planned; although Jess bitterly criticizes her mother, we can see that Thelma acted out of the best motives.


Helmond and Gless, the stars of the hit 80s television series Soap and Cagney and Cagney and Lacey, made a convincing team, each trying to make the other understand their respective points of view, yet ultimately failing to connect. Perhaps suicide is Jess’s best option; continuing to live would condemn her to further isolation.