Looking to spice up another tedious, eat-in evening with a tedious, live-in parent? Try announcing your impending suicide. That’s the gambit of ‘night, Mother, the neatly folded living-room cataclysm that won Marsha Norman the Pulitzer in 1983 and brought Tony nods to then-unknown actresses Kathy Bates (as spent, epileptic divorcée Jessie) and Anne Pitoniak (Mama, all appetite and insensate endurance). With a new Broadway revival starring Edie Falco as Jessie and Brenda Blethyn as Mama, comparisons with the original are inevitable. Unless, like this critic, you missed the original — in which case, you’re free to feel deeply frustrated with both play and players, and yet, ultimately, to be moved by both.
‘night, Mother is high melodrama at heart, muted by the beigeness of its milieu (”a relatively new house built way out on a country road”) and the mundanity of its stage business: As the two spar with stagy civility over to-be-or-not-to-be, Jessie systematically prepares the household for her departure, refilling Mama’s candy jars, sorting Mama’s pills, introducing Mama (condescendingly, it seems) to her own house. Falco plays this puttering as an evasive maneuver, and Blethyn must compensate by practically chasing her around the room. The early dynamic devolves into a footrace between gelid defeatism and ornery life energy, with the audience feeling not particularly invested in either outcome. The rage that lurks outside the play’s manicured borders is kept disappointingly at bay.
But at length, the two settle down over cocoa, and seem, for the first time, to inhabit the same house. Blethyn is particularly good at letting her maternal bewilderment drop, revealing a tormented sympathy with her daughter’s drive for oblivion. When she cries, ”How could I know you were so alone?” she clearly and heartbreakingly answers her own question.