Urban Samurai returns with the revelatory 'Night, Mother
Tina Sigel and Marcia Svaleson
When it launched in 2005, Urban Samurai quickly became known for producing off-the-beaten-path shows that would have otherwise fallen through the cracks of the local theater scene. Then suddenly, in 2012, the company went silent.
As abruptly as it left, Urban Samurai is now back with 'Night, Mother, a searing and absorbing march that traces the final evening in a troubled relationship between mother and daughter. The play has particular significance for director Matt Greseth, whose daughter's death from illness shortly after her 20th birthday was a factor in the company's hiatus. Undeniably, Robin Williams's suicide earlier in the week also cast a pall over the proceedings.
The subject of the play is no secret going in, which gives the show an edge even though the set — the kitchen, dining room, and living room of the Cates' home — looks as normal as could be. Seemingly mundane details at the beginning of the play are off kilter: Daughter Jessie first asks her mother, Thelma, if there are towels she doesn't want anymore, before wondering aloud if plastic bags would do a better job. Any doubt as to her motive is erased when, while cleaning her father's gun, Jessie announces matter-of-factly, "I'm going to kill myself."
From here, Jessie anticipates a routine Saturday evening: She'll give her mother a manicure like always before retreating to her bedroom with the gun. She has set out lists to help Thelma cope without her help, and even leaves notes on what to do in the immediate aftermath of the gunshot.
Thelma spends the rest of the play trying to convince her daughter to hang onto life, even as the coldly logical Jessie outlines — in just as precise terms as her instructions on where to put the candy in the cupboards — why oblivion is a better option than living.
No doubt Jessie has reasons for her decision: Epilepsy has made her afraid to interact with the world, causing the end of her marriage and bringing her to live in her mother's lonely country home. Her current prescription cocktail has worked well enough to clear her head, and ever the logical one, Jessie sees this window of clarity as her last, best chance to escape a life she no longer wants to live.
There's never much doubt about where this is going — especially as the program has a gunshot warning in it — so 'Night, Mother becomes less about saving Jessie from her fate and more about two people finally telling each other the truth because there isn't any more time to lie.
Thelma uses every type of argument she can think of to keep Jessie alive during the evening, from the religious to the social to the practical. As her arguments continually fall on deaf ears, Thelma finally opens up and bitterly looks at her own life — perhaps to inspire Jessie to endure, or to assuage her own guilt over the act her daughter is about to commit.
Tina Sigel (as Thelma) and Marcia Svaleson (as Jessie) are best in the quiet moments here, from the opening routines of the household to Sigel's final walk around the silent set at the play's end. Svaleson's is a particularly difficult character — one who needs to remain logical in the face of what is truly the ultimate decision. Her performance is as solid as Sigel's, though she does fall victim to the strange acoustics at the New Century Theatre, which render the occasional line inaudible.
'Night, Mother is heady, intense material, and Sigel and Svaleson work tirelessly to keep it from becoming just an angry, overwhelming shouting match. The few moments of fiery confrontation between Jessie and Thelma don't offer much release — and they shouldn't. Each layer that the pair uncovers — about their husbands, their children, their relationship with each other, and eventually Jessie's illness — doesn't bring any closure, just the sense that this relationship is being cut off mid-sentence. Director Greseth keeps winding the tension tighter and tighter, and the final silence doesn't bring any solace, or real closure — just more questions.
615 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55402
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