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Theater Review

Insightful Acting, Direction Make It a Good ' 'Night'

May 17, 1999|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is an ordinary evening in the very ordinary home of Thelma Cates. She is laying out her comfort food and waiting for her daughter Jessie to give her the usual manicure, chattering in her typical, annoying way, calling to Jessie to hurry.

But Jessie has another agenda. She is busy foraging for one of the guns her late father stashed in the attic. She announces early on that the two will spend their usual evening together, then she will go into her bedroom and commit suicide.

In a taut, muscular staging by Rude Guerrilla at the Empire Theatre in Santa Ana, Marsha Norman's " 'Night, Mother" unfolds with touching insight and powerful dramatic strokes.

Under Todd Kulczyk's gritty direction, the sad, dysfunctional past that mother and daughter have shared is laid on the table along with the dinner, the manicure set and the cups of Thelma's nasty-tasting cocoa.

Jessie's logical and calm explanation for her decision, and her mother's frantic attempts to avert the inevitable, are playwright Norman's powerful statement about the sanctity of one's right to control his or her own fate, and the wisdom of respecting that right when all other avenues are closed.

Kulczyk understands the playwright's message. He has shaped the story and the performances into a tragedy of Greek proportions, weaving the ever-growing tension into a tapestry of helplessness and strength that occur simultaneously.

The play and this staging also have an edge of hope in the undeniable power of the human spirit under the most desperate of circumstances, and this is evident in performances by Joyce Eriksen as Thelma and Cathy Petz as her determined daughter.

Thelma has lived her life in double denial--denial of her loveless marriage to a man who never spoke to her, and denial of her daughter's epilepsy. There is also her denial of her own needs, illustrated in her passion for junk food and her loneliness.

Eriksen's bountiful energy and delicate shadings of character paint an empathetic portrait that lingers in the memory.

Petz adds a craggy edge to daughter Jessie's resolute attitude and carefully hones it in each scene, until its piercing determination seems inevitable; every move and every gesture are aimed at the inner core of her character's decisive path.

This is not a happy play, but in spite of its subject matter, it does leave the viewer with a finer understanding of what makes the human clock tick on against all odds.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

* " 'Night, Mother," Empire Theatre, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends June 13. $12. (714) 547-4688. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

Joyce Eriksen: Thelma Cates

Cathy Petz: Jessie Cates

A Rude Guerrilla production of Marsha Norman's drama. Directed by Todd Kulczyk. Scenic/lighting design: Sean-Patrick Gallagher.

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