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Review: Death is center stage in ''night Mother'

Life can be a drag, a dreary routine of working, eating and trying to sleep. Every week, 1,000 Americans exercise their option to end it, mostly with guns.

What’s unusual, as seen in “’night Mother,” a Rogue Theater Company production that just opened at Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Black Swan Theater, is telling a loved one ahead of time so you can talk it out, rage and cry, and confess all the secrets before you do it and then come to terms with the cold fact that death is here.

In the 90-minute Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Marsha Norman, you are intimate, only 10 paces from the two actors. The mother, Thelma, and her middle-aged, divorced daughter Jessie, who calmly, while folding towels, says “I’m going to kill myself, Mom” and it’s going to happen tonight.

Wow. You realize you just got the punchline of the play. It starts by telling you the ending and you know, from Jessie’s tone of voice that fate is implacable, so the story is about: How did we get here?

Did she disclose this to Mom just to turn the screw and get revenge, or did she want to open up some long-delayed communication, then they will hug, shower adoration and gratitude on each other and go on with a much-improved life? That would be the Hollywood way, as in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But that’s not going to happen.

Jessica Sage, who plays Mom with soul-shattering acumen, replete with tired graying locks and tatty bathrobe, can throw pots and pans with the best of them and run shrieking and bawling, back and forth through the five stages of grief like it was a xylophone.

Why is Jessie doing this? “I’m tired of hurting, I’m sad and feel used ... I’m sad about the way things are. I read the paper and see the way things are, then it’s on TV.”

Mom replies “good times don’t come looking for you ... you’re acting like a little brat.”

As it draws to its inevitable end, Jesse says her life “is all I have that really belongs to me and I’m going to make it stop.”

The baggage spills out. Jessie had “fits” all her life, but Mom didn’t want to talk about epilepsy. It made her daughter seem like a freak. Dad was quiet with Mom, but talked to his daughter. Jessie had a son, but he’s a dope. Depression is the norm for everyone. Jessie treasures her cigarettes, “the only thing I know that’s just like it was last tine.” She vapes, numbing the pain for a few minutes. She culls through her belongings, telling mom what to do with each one. She is calm, businesslike.

Jessie cleans and loads her Dad’s revolver. Mom says those bullets are old and no good. But Jessie, plowing through denial and bargaining to acceptance stages, has got new ones. Mom touches her hands. They are cold, causing Mom to say, “You’re already dead.”

It’s grim, this tale. Asked why she wanted to produce and act in it, Sage says, “It’s the role of a lifetime. Not many plays are written by a woman to women with as much depth and power and a multitude of colors. When I saw it, long ago, I wanted to tackle it. It’s an experience on every level. This character has so much to it. It’s irresistible. Every day, I fall more and more in love with my character. Thelma has the outer veneer of strength, but actually is quite vulnerable.”

Sage is the creator of Rogue Theater Company, which, in this production, is using a lot of OSF personnel: Director Caroline Shaffer, set designer Richard Hay, light designer Chris Sackett, the list goes on.

Sage candidly notes she’s aware suicide is a topic people don’t want to relax with for an evening on the town. However, “these two women had more to say to each other in this evening than at any time in their lives. They get to a place of understanding, resignation and trust, a beautiful thing between a mother and daughter. Life can be messy when you see it reflected in theater.

“This will stay with people, to contemplate. People want to talk about it. But it’s the kind of theater where people will want to go out for a drink afterward and continue discussing it, and that’s what theater is supposed to do, to enlighten, entertain and reflect on it, on your own.”

In fact, audience members stayed on to talk with cast and representatives from Community Works and Maslow Project, for whom the opening night was a fundraiser.

“You could see people wanted to continue the conversation,” says Sage. “Two people (in the post-play gathering) had suicide in their lives and they were strangers and kept talking and talking. I treasure that.”

It runs the next two weekends, Fridays and Saturdays, with Sunday matinee and talkback after the Nov. 10 show. Details are at https://roguetheatercompany.com/home-1

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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