Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Marsha Norman, Philippine Educational Theater Association’s (PETA) production of ‘Night, Mother takes place in real time over the course of one night. Jessie (Eugene Domingo) tells her mother, Thelma (Sherry Lara), that she has decided to commit suicide that very evening, and Thelma spends the next 90 minutes trying to convince her daughter to stay alive.
‘Night, Mother is a difficult play by design, both for the audience and for the company staging it. Understandably, some of the risks it takes don’t totally pay off. The play leaves something to be desired in its exploration of mental illness, but it maintains an unshakeable atmosphere of anxiety, and the performances from its two actresses are terrifying in their authenticity.
What makes the acting in this production fascinating is how emotionally distant the two women are. As Jessie, Domingo is eerily placid, her movements deliberate and her speech dejected. As Thelma, Lara grows increasingly frantic, trying every tactic in the book to connect with her daughter. The way each woman reacts to the other’s brokenness is the main attraction here.
Given that the play only consists of two women arguing without any theatrical flourishes, it’s especially impressive how director Melvin Lee keeps the momentum going from the first revelation to the last. You can sense the tension in how Jessie and Thelma circle around each other. This is where production design becomes key: all the intricate furnishings in this living room setup serve as both distractions and barriers. They try to ignore the elephant in the room by keeping their hands busy, or they tear through the objects standing between them.
All of this only helps deepen the grief growing between mother and daughter. As the night goes on in the play, Jessie and Thelma peel the layers off each other, exposing their complicated relationship and the reasons that must have compelled Jessie to decide to take her own life.
Unfortunately, much of ‘Night, Mother’s script still feels stuck in the 80s. Discourse on mental health is much more nuanced today than it was before, so the play can’t help but appear to have a rudimentary understanding of the subject. It’s true that the play’s limitations only allow it to objectively portray a mental illness sufferer without going into many details, but it still doesn’t feel as thorough as today’s viewers deserve. At worst, viewers who aren’t given the proper guidance might interpret Jessie’s rationalizations of suicide as valid and selfless. And while PETA does provide a debriefing session with mental health professionals after every show, it wouldn’t have hurt if Melvin Lee and writer Ian Lomongo were more subjective—clearer about what behavior isn’t acceptable.
As the finale to PETA’s 50th season, ‘Night, Mother is currently more valuable as a performance piece than an educational tool. Thankfully, the company is committed to providing additional material, including teacher’s guides, to ensure that the play is processed with the proper sensitivity. Still, on its own, ‘Night, Mother is rewarding enough to recommend, but is strictly only for people who know what they’re getting into.
‘NIGHT, MOTHER RUNS UNTIL MARCH 18 AT THE PETA THEATER CENTER, QUEZON CITY.