Pictured: Cinnamon Schultz. Photo by Brian Paulette.
By Pec Pennington
As the lights lift, Thelma is searching her cabinets for a snowball treat, calling to her daughter as of yet out of sight about nothing in particular. She discovers it in a higher shelf and stuffs it happily in her mouth, continuing her monologue around it. She has an air of contentment about her simple existence. Kenneth Martin’s especially realistic set establishes ordinariness, padding some fad fixtures circa the 1990s with the expected knickknacks one might accumulate over a rural lower-middle-class lifetime.
Cinnamon Schultz’s calm, even delivery as Jessie Cates is horrific. Just minutes into the play, after nonchalantly eliciting her mother’s help in finding the handgun in the attic, we receive Jessie’s impossible demand for a nice, normal evening before she kills herself. Written with no scene changes, no intermission, and acted in real-time, the tension is unrelenting. She goes about methodically tying up the final loose ends of her life while steadily but wearily batting away every excuse and protest her mother can conjure. The mundane work she commits herself to stands out in bewildering stark contrast to the resignation of her decision. She cleans out the fridge, folds laundry, refills the candy dishes and her mother’s pill organizer, washes the dishes, and exasperates Thelma with regular interjections about negotiating the housekeeping when she is gone. She’s been thinking about this for a while.
As she watches her daughter busy with preparations, Thelma, portrayed by the incredible Jan Rogge, reflects our sympathetic desperation as an audience: denying, stamping her feet, stalling, bargaining. Her struggling confusion is understandable to Jessie, who has predicted the emotional conflict and is hoping to assuage any untrue notions of guilt that may crop up later. We know, of course, that this kind of preparation is wishful thinking – cruel, even. However inadvertently, the evening has become a hostage situation.
The script is not an exercise in apologetics, but some myths about suicide are challenged intelligently. We get a strong chance as an audience to see Jessie’s reasoning for wanting to end her life and the relief (if not actual peace) she has in her decision, even as we hope she changes her mind. All of us have experienced times in our lives that feel completely helpless, and we know what flailing we did to fight to regain our rights to ourselves. Jessie has never had autonomy even though she feels responsible for a lot of failures. Her careful planning and steely resolve are the results of finally feeling in control. Thelma, for her part, has always coped with life by passively ignoring or covering up the ugly parts. She eats a lot of sugar and tells tall tales about her friends, but never really stops to contemplate the truth underneath them. She thinks she has protected her daughter by being dependent on her. As the dedicated moment is drawing nearer, the difficulties between mother and daughter demand closure, but what kind?
With ‘NIGHT, MOTHER Kansas City Actors Theatre has delivered a gripping experience that should not be missed. Directed by Sidonie Garrett, it is running from now through January 26th at the Union Station City Stage Theater.