REVIEW: Vintage theater ‘Night Mother a riveting triumph

The show’s pace, the rare moments of comic relief, the tension and the unexpected create a dramatic time bomb that keeps ticking faster and faster as the two women careen to the show’s end. Prepare to leave the show spent and wiser

AURORA | What an uneasy combination the Vintage Theater brings with its powerful, winning production of “‘Night Mother.”

Arguably one of the finest pieces of storytelling ever created for the stage, the Aurora show is blessed with a near-flawless performance, allowing the audience to relish and writhe in the excruciating pending suicide of a middle-age woman lost in a meaningless life.

The one-act play takes place in the meager kitchen of a sad house in the middle of nowhere, anywhere in America. Jessie — in her 40s, divorced, epileptic and jobless — lives with her spoiled, self-centered, widowed mother. The play focuses on Jessie’s determined and well-planned suicide, and the hours leading up to it.

Haley Johnson, as Jessie, and Emma Messenger, as Mama, star in “‘Night Mother” at the Vintage Theater.  (Photo provided)
Haley Johnson, as Jessie, and Emma Messenger, as Mama, star in “‘Night Mother” at the Vintage Theater. (Photo provided)

The play is a theatrical version of watching the impending train wreck that life can become for any of us. It’s a study in the cruelty we share among ourselves and unflinchingly pile on each other. It’s a captivating night of voyeurism spent crossing the line of propriety and decency into sadistic darkness. You can’t turn away.

Of course the Pulitzer Prize-winning play is brilliantly crafted to draw you in and hold you and your emotions hostage while you watch the inevitable end methodically traipse to the finale.

But it would be a cheat to director Billie McBride, Haley Johnson, as Jessie, and Emma Messenger as Mama, to not credit them with exploiting the play just the right way.

Messenger’s portrayal of Jessie’s self-absorbed, trite mother is nothing less than stellar. If you don’t see anything else on metro stages this year, go let Messenger bring you to the edge of your seat with her desperate, clingy attempt to set aside a pathetic life filled with junk food and reruns, frantic to keep her daughter from killing herself.

Messenger and Johnson have mastered the complexity of the show. It’s not enough to cringe while you watch Jessie meticulously go about folding clothes, filling candy dishes and making lists for her mother, as if she were headed out for a long vacation. The two women expertly heighten the tension by making it unclear if Jessie’s mother is desperate to stop her daughter out of love, guilt or selfishness. While Jessie loads up the trash and cleans out the refrigerator, matter-of-factly marching toward her death, she makes it impossible to decide whether the suicide is an act of selfishness, cruelty or pragmatism.

“Night Mother”

Through  June 14 at
the Vintage Theater,
1468Dayton St.

Friday/Saturday at 7:30 p.m.,
Sunday at 2:30 p.m.; Thursday, June 11, at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, June 13, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $24 to $28

303-856-7830 or online at www.vintagetheatre.org

Unlike so much in American theater, literature and film, “‘Night Mother” is exasperating and unnerving as Jessie tidily prepares to kill herself, blurring the lines of how we want to explain her tragic life and, at the same time, let her be her own undoing.

The show’s pace, the rare moments of comic relief, the tension and the unexpected create a dramatic time bomb that keeps ticking faster and faster as the two women careen to the show’s end. Prepare to leave the show spent and wiser.

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