For a play to go for 90-minutes, and be carried entirely by two characters, without boring the audience to death, a whole lot more than the writing being as good as it gets is needed. It takes an experienced director with razor-sharp skills and two actors as deeply connected and guided by instinct as they would be where the story their own lives immediately unfolding. We already know, before the theatre doors even open, the first part is covered – Marsha Norman’s ‘Night, Mother won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983, an exceedingly rare accomplishment for a female writer, let alone one who wrote a female two-hander dealing with the extraordinary complexities of forced cohabitation between the mother-daughter relationship being stretched beyond breaking point by the pressures of immediate grief, selfishness and the troubling subject of mental illness.
Once the doors do open, director Barry O’Neil’s set design is the first thing to jump out at us – a stage not only intricately detailed, but largely functional, is an assuring sign that Norman’s shatteringly poignant and masterfully rendered work is in good hands. But it is the actors upon whom the delivery of this beautiful work rests.
Di Kelly is clearly moved by the content of the script, but she layers her performance so as to never preempt the result, a common mistake for many an actor. Her performance could be improved by thinking less about blocking and delivery, and instead giving in to the immediate urgency – the need to reach out to her suicidal daughter. It’s a role that demands for the utter desperation of maternal love, albeit one well contained, and Kelly clearly has all the necessary tools to bring it to life truthfully. This became evident as the script progressed, and she “let go” more, so to speak – her focus seemed to shift from performing to saving Jessie, as the threat of losing her became real. It is there, that it is best.
Jen Bush is an extremely promising young actor with a skill-set that exceeds her apparent age. She connects to Jessie’s resignation and the complicated set of circumstances that led her there without judgement and seemingly innately. When dealing with such subject matter, the temptation to perform is terrible, but Bush never gives in, and her performance is difficult to judge as a result – exactly what a performance should be. With training and discipline, the sky is the limit for Bush.
Barry O’Neil has undertaken an enormous task in directing Norman’s script. Written in the classic off-Broadway style, it is organic, subtle and complex as the human heartbeat. Slowly it escalates, stripping back layers until base urgency is reached and the final devastating climax can take place. It requires a level of discipline not readily available to many aspiring directors in Australia, and particularly given the precedent set by community theatre. That O’Neil doesn’t become Homer Simpson at the bat with Rodger Clemens at the pitch deserves high commendation – his choices, and those of the actors, add a tantalising degree of risk to the normally safe-zone confines of small-town Australian theatre.
Review by Max Davine