It begins as an ordinary evening in an ordinary house, where a mother and her fortyish daughter are preparing to spend one more banal night together. There's cocoa to be made, a manicure to be given and mundane chatter to get through another empty evening. But several minutes into 'night, Mother, Marsha Norman's 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, it becomes clear that nothing about this night is ordinary: Jessie Cates announces to her mother, Thelma, that before the evening is out, she intends to kill herself.
What follows is an honest, moving, gut-wrenching battle of life and death, played out in real time over 90 minutes. Jessie has led a life of quiet desperation — so has the less self-aware Thelma — and despite the fact that they live under the same roof, they are in many ways strangers, having never reached out to each other. With time running out and Thelma desperately attempting to thwart her daughter's suicide, secrets and feelings come pouring out, and two anguished lives are revealed.
Beginning this month, Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn bring Norman's lost souls to life in a revival of the two-character play directed by Michael Mayer. (Previews begin at the Royale Theatre Oct. 22, with the opening set for Nov. 14.) The emotions expressed in 'night, Mother are so raw, the dialogue is so real and the situation is so unremittingly sad, that both Falco and Blethyn say some of their friends could not understand why they would want to live with these characters eight times a week.
"I've had a lot of people say, 'Why would you want to do this play?'" says Falco. "But why else be an actor than to get to explore places that are deep and complicated? I have such compassion for people who have been to that kind of dark place, and I look forward to wandering into that place and spending time in that person." Blethyn's friends had more than one reservation. "A lot of people said to me, 'You don't want to do that play. Not only is it depressing, but you're not old enough to play Edie Falco's mother.' I'm here to tell you I am." (Blethyn's 58, Falco's 41.) "That lady [Thelma] had her baby when she was in her teens. And I don't find the play depressing. It's probing and introspective and heartbreaking, and along the way it's sometimes funny and ironic. I love the play and both the characters. This is such a tragedy. What's life going to be like for Thelma from tomorrow morning on, knowing what she knows? My heart goes out to her."
Falco concedes there was a time when playing a character like Jessie would have been "dangerous" for her. "As a young actor, I would accidentally lose myself in parts," she says. "At a certain point I would think, 'This is good acting.' It wasn't. It was irresponsible. When I went home at the end of the day, I wasn't safe. I won't get into specifics, but I was behaving in ways that the character approved of and Edie didn't. Luckily I got over it when I was doing Side Man in London. I did that play in various incarnations for four years, and in the beginning the line between me and my character was a little foggy. But by the end of the run in London, I completely understood how to separate out. All of a sudden it felt like my performances got deeper. I knew I could travel deep into that character and then return home safely."
Falco and Blethyn were scheduled to meet for the first time a few weeks prior to the start of rehearsals. Some actors find it important, when creating characters with a shared history — particularly one as intense as in 'night, Mother — to establish a relationship offstage as well as on, believing that it enriches their characterizations. Both actresses take a more pragmatic approach.
"It's such an individual thing," says Falco, who last appeared on Broadway in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and is renowned for her Emmy Award-winning performance as Carmela Soprano. "I bet a lot of actors will tell me I'm wrong, but my experience has been that the relationship in the play or in the script is the only one that needs work. It's certainly true on 'The Sopranos.' James Gandolfini and I really don't know that much about each other. We don't have a relationship from which to draw to do our characters. The relationship that exists is one that we created out of thin air — and, of course, with directors and scripts."
"I'm anxious to meet Edie and have a mental picture in my head," says Blethyn, the British stage veteran making her Broadway debut, best known in this country for her Oscar-nominated performance in "Secrets and Lies." "It's a tactile thing, to know who's lived in the mother's house all this time. There has to be an ease of communication. These two characters have a shorthand. A glance can speak volumes because they know each other so well. It's important to build trust. But I think all these things can be built during four weeks of rehearsal."
The actresses, however, follow different paths in finding their way into their own character. "I mess myself up by trying to do research," says Falco. "In fact, I need to not even look at the script until I sit down with the other people working on it. If I work on it alone, wheels start turning, and my performance will start to set itself. I don't want that to happen without the other actor."
Blethyn, on the other hand, tries to fill in details of her character's past in order to better understand her present situation. "The way I work, I do have to know how the character's feeling, and where she's come from at the top of page one," she says.
"This is a 58-year-old woman. She didn't just turn up at page one. Where has she been for 58 years? What mood is she in at the top of the play? Does she feel good? Did she sleep well last night? And that's just the beginning. 'night, Mother is so beautifully written that it informs the audience of what's gone before, bringing us up to why we are at this point. And it's really not a two-hander at all. The people they talk about are so brilliantly observed that they are as rich and alive as if they were sitting right there on the sofa."
'night, Mother marks the second time that Falco's taken on a role originated by Kathy Bates. "It's an utter coincidence," she says. "There's a kinesthetic response I get when I read a script, and it so happens that Frankie and Johnny and 'night, Mother were two scripts that moved me. I have such tremendous respect for the work that Kathy Bates has done. She was so fortunate to get to do these two magnificent characters before anybody had any idea about them. I hope one day I'll be able to go headfirst into something no one's ever seen before."