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'Mother': From Stage To Film And Back Again


The clock on the kitchen table--as do all the clocks in this neat frame house in rural Middle America--reads 7:05 p.m. Precisely.

"Five minutes after seven," director Tom Moore mused recently on the movie set of " 'night, Mother."

"The story starts at five minutes after six; that means we are one hour into it. On Broadway, we started it at 8:05 p.m. But this was the latest we could go and still have it light outside."

But at the Mark Taper Forum, where " 'night, Mother" the play opens Thursday night, the kitchen clock is once again set at 8:05 p.m. And Moore, along with playwright Marsha Norman, is in the delicious position of taking the work from play to movie--and back to play again.

While Moore faced the unenviable, whirlybird task of rushing from Burbank during the last days of movie shooting to downtown Los Angeles to begin Taper rehearsals--from Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft in the movie to Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak of the original cast in the play--Norman had other deadlines to meet. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, having flown back to New York, was holed up in her apartment, putting finishing touches on her first novel.

" 'night, Mother" first ran at Harvard's American Repertory Theater and went to Broadway in March, 1983--just in time, it seemed, for the Pulitzer, which it won less than three weeks later. The play caused quite a sensation--as much for the subject matter as for the award.

Early in the two-character production, as in the movie adapted by Norman, Jessie--divorced and probably agoraphobic, because she doesn't go beyond the enclosed back porch--says matter-of-factly: "I'm going to kill myself, Mama."

On the surface, the subject is suicide; the underlying themes, according to Norman, Moore and " 'night, Mother's" other guardians, are the struggle to survive, controlling one's own destiny, indeed life itself.

Or, as Mama notes in movie and play: "I like it here, and I will stay here until they make me go, until they drag me screaming--and I mean screeching--into my grave. . . ."

On the Burbank Studios lot, Moore, whose range of work includes the musical "Grease," lovingly picks up the white plastic clock with its caramel face.

"I made sure to get this clock from the Broadway production. It was sentimental to me. I liked the fact that all four women handled it."

He'll also bring the clock to the Taper stage for opening night.

"It's not exactly the way I would have planned this," Moore said with an edge of sarcasm about the scheduling overlap. " ' 'night, Mother' was originally put into the Taper schedule on the basis of us going in November, which meant the film was supposed to be finished by Christmas. We just got postponed. Anne Bancroft wasn't available because of a carry-over from another project, then it got postponed."

But he said the fact that Bates and Pitoniak are once more working for him has its own rewards.

"The play came to life with these two actresses. This is their baby. It kind of brings to full circle our experience together. Their work goes beyond acting. It's almost as if we're eavesdropping."

In turn, despite the similarity of dialogue, movie and play are different productions. As for Spacek and Bancroft doing the movie, Moore says: "I think that's just the circumstances of film. Some things need that kind of power, that kind of star power, and these two people are perfect for their roles. Both Anne and Sissy, they're so loyal to the material that when a mistake is made in the dialogue it forces them to stop, even on places where I wish to God they wouldn't. . . ."

In mid-production, " 'night, Mother" (an Aaron Spelling production for Universal Pictures) is all but a closed set. Bancroft walks about as if in tunnel vision, rehearsing, repeating lines to herself. Spacek is uncomfortable seeing a strange face. They are, after all, just the two of them on screen for virtually the entire movie. The intensity is palpable.

Ironically, because of the emotional wallop of Norman's script, because of its zigzag of emotional highs and lows--and because it has only two distinct scenes--Moore decided to rehearse Spacek and Bancroft, as if in a play, for two weeks before shooting began. Then, going to film in late January, Moore shot "in absolute chronological order."

"It's the only way the actors have any idea where they are, so they don't go high-high there and low-low there."

In the transition to movie, Spacek was the catalyst. She saw " 'night, Mother" on Broadway New Year's Eve, 1984; two days later, a column item appeared saying she wanted to do the movie role of Jessie with her husband, Jack Fisk, as director.

Having someone else come into the mix was the last thing wanted by co-executive producers David Lancaster and Dann Byck, who is Norman's husband. But they said they did want Spacek.

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