October 30, 2019
Ankeny Community Theatre tackles tough issues in drama
By John Busbee for The Culture Buzz
Ankeny Community Theatre launched its Studio Series a couple of years ago. The intent was to give very involved community members the opportunity to dig into more dramatic, intense content in a smaller window of performance time. Low risk, expansion of production opportunities for its theatre family. This bold experiment in audience development – giving patrons a low-cost, easy commitment way to experience more provocative theatre – seems to be working. ‘night, Mother brings a show to their stage that will make audiences squirm a bit, and definitely think a lot.
American playwright Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother opened in 1982, a year after she completed writing it. Her play won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. It also received Tony Award nominations for Best Actor in a Play (both women in the two-person cast) and for Best Director.
‘night, Mother opens with a daughter, Jessie, calmly telling her mother, Thelma, that by morning she will be dead. Jessie is a divorced mother of a criminal son. Her life situation forced her return to live in the family home with her Mama. Jessie is unemployed, epileptic, unsatisfied and depressed. Thelma initially dismisses her daughter’s talk of suicide, even after Jessie finds her father’s old gun in the attic. After Thelma’s dismissing such talk as a rather sick joke, she realizes how serious her daughter is about her decision. Their exchanges quickly wander into a minefield of past secrets and repressed feelings, all which have added to the toxicity of their relationship. The explosiveness and rawness of these moments is countered by Jessie’s circling back to the calmness of her decision. She continues to herd her mother along the track she has planned, giving her lists of daily actions, contacts and parental-like commands to prepare her mother after she is gone.
This is a cautionary tale to audiences to be aware of those close to you. Signs are there for the attentive to see when a loved one or anyone needs help. Therein lies the power of theatre – not just taking ‘night, Mother at face value, but delving deeply into understanding how its lessons should be carried into the real world.
As Jessie, Beth Feilmeier embraces this fragmented soul. She shows the accumulated weight of a lifetime of differences challenges and conflicts without the nurturing support of her Mama, given indulgent vulnerability by Charissa Hamel. Under Lisa Gould’s direction, these two become the psychological combatants where neither can win. While it takes a while for Feilmeier and Hamel to become fully invested in their roles, they provide powerful linchpins as they spar, dodge, parry and thrust at each other, deconstructing their complex relationship along the way. Norman’s script does have moments of lightness and humor, metaphoric rays of sunshine through stormy clouds, that could have been better developed in this production. Still, the power of ‘night, Mother’s content will hit its audience full force. While not for everyone, the cultural adventurer will be well-served to enter a realm where your comfort level will be challenged, and your mind will be stimulated. Kudos also go to Ankeny Community Theatre’s production team for a fine looking, realistic scenic design, giving this show a setting that enfolded itself around the action of two fine performers.
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