It isn't difficult to draw a comparison between "'Night, Mother" and "Steel Magnolias." Both plays feature an all-female cast, strongly identify with the South and feature a physically ill woman grappling with her mortality.
Marsha Norman's "'Night, Mother," playing at the Firehouse Theatre Project, has a premise as simple as it is sinister: While calmly straightening up the house one evening, Jessie informs her mother, Thelma, that she's going to kill herself before the morning comes. This launches the women into a night of revealing conversations that they'd always put off.
A shut-in epileptic divorcee, Jessie has been refused a life of fulfillment at every turn. Her son is a petty crook, her ex-husband gone and her medical condition leaves her unable to keep a job. With few options, Jessie has decided that instead of simply existing with her mother in the house she grew up in, she wants to take the one action she can complete successfully.
Kimberly Jones Clark expertly portrays Jessie as a defeated woman who has steeled herself for suicide. She brings a nervous determination to her role, still troubled by events that have happened in her life but unwavering in her resolve. While Jessie cleans and explains what her mother should do after she kills herself, you get the impression that she's cleaning up the loose ends of her life as well.
Like a lower-class version of a Tennessee Williams character, Thelma has grown comfortable in her world of illusions and pink Hostess Snowballs. She'd rather make up a story about an eccentric neighbor than deal directly with the problem at hand, making messes to delay Jessie's plans to commit suicide.
Catherine Shaffner gives a powerhouse performance as Thelma. With every gesture and facial tic she completely inhabits her role as the mother who doesn't want to let go, and her defeated wails at the show's end are absolutely heartbreaking.
Edwin Slipek's excellent Southern-inspired set lends the show a sunny atmosphere, making the play's topic seem all the more insidious (Slipek is a senior contributing editor at Style Weekly). Margarette Joyner's costumes fit the characters well, and Geno Brantley's lighting design smartly outlines the ticking clock at the beginning and end.
David Emerson Toney's direction elicits some excellent performances from the show's actors, and does little to blunt the show's heaviness.
As a counterpoint to "Steel Magnolias," the lesson isn't one of resilience and female bonding, it's one of life's futility and disappointments. With "'Night, Mother," Firehouse has created a weighty and moving evening of theater that's sure to impress. S
"'Night, Mother" plays through Oct. 19 at Firehouse Theatre Project, 1609 W. Broad St. Visit firehousetheatre.org or call 355-2001.