This 1983 play by Marsha Norman won a Pulitzer prize and is being revived as part of Hampstead’s 60th anniversary season – it had its European premiere there in 1985. A two hander for a mother and daughter, it is showing its years but gets compelling performances from Stockard Channing as Thelma, the mother, and Rebecca Night as her epileptic daughter Jessie who has decided to kill herself. Channing is worth seeing in anything, but this grim, depressing tale about a family destroyed is a hard sell and Norman does pack an awful lot of ever more depressing revelations into its ninety minutes. By the end one is exhausted and emotionally drained.
The production by the theatre’s director Roxanna Silbert is straightforward but not really helped by a set by Ti Green which sprawls all over the Hampstead stage – it all needs to be far more claustrophobic and lived in. But you have to fill the stage somehow and it certainly looks good.
Jessie has moved in with her mother after her husband has left her and her son, a drug user, has turned to crime. Her father has died and she has come to look after Thelma. She has also decided to kill herself and at the start she sets off to find her father’s gun which is somewhere in the attic. Then she sets about arranging things so that Thelma can cope smoking lots of cigarettes the while.
As a period piece it is worth reviving, and Night delivers a powerful performance as the single minded Jessie, while Channing, a player one watches regardless. seizes the role with relish. Thelma had a loveless marriage, has always denied her daughter’s epilepsy, and now comes eventually to realise when the door to Jessie’s bedroom is finally shut how much she needs her daughter.
Thelma: Stockard Channing.
Jessie: Rebecca Night.
Director: Roxana Silbert.
Designer: Ti Green.
Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher.
Sound Designer: John Leonard.
Fight Directors: Ruth Cooper-Brown & Bethan Clark (RC Annie Ltd)
Production photographs: Marc Brenner.