Theatre at Tarleton brings suicide into the spotlight with “‘Night, Mother”
By Denise Harroff—
After four and a half weeks of practice, Theatre at Tarleton is opening its doors for audiences to view “’Night, Mother,” a 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning play by Marsha Norman about a mother and daughter discussing suicide. Opening night for the play was last night, April 5, at 7:30 p.m.
There are only two characters in the 90-minute play: Thelma Cates, also known as Momma, who is played by Morgan Hill, and Jessie Cates, who is played by Cathryn D’Amore.
Mark Holtorf, the play’s director and an associate professor of fine arts at Tarleton State University, said that the setting of the play was intended to be relatable for the audience.
“We’re taking it not a step more than the author intended, but we are setting it in Stephenville today. We have local references in it,” said Holtorf.
He explained that he wanted the audience to feel connected to the play in this way, because he feels it is important to bring the reality of suicide to light in this day, this time and this area.
“This could be anybody anywhere, and one of the reasons we make it in Stephenville—right here, right now—this is going on somewhere. And I’m going to bet it’s going on somewhere around here. Suicide is a common thing that is done more than you’d like to think about,” Holtorf said.
He also said that the emotions caused by the severity of the play’s subject have been present throughout the cast and crew since the first day of practice.
“I’ve been through well over 100 read-throughs for a play with a cast, and this one, by the very end of the play, the actress(es) playing Momma and Jesse and myself were literally crying our eyes out,” Holtorf said, “almost uncontrollable weeping by Morgan Hill, who plays Momma.”
Hill, a junior theater major, said, “When we did our first read-through, we just sat in the classroom and sat there and read, and by the end of it, I was bawling. I was ugly-crying, there was snot, everything.”
She also mentioned that her emotions were driven by personal experience.
“I’ve had a lot of friends that have struggled in the past with suicide, suicide tendencies. So being Momma, who’s the one trying to help (Jessie) not do that… I understand that helplessness, so that really helped me in the process,” said Hill.
Holtorf and Hill said that, because many believe the ending of the play is so dramatic and emotional, they did not run through the end of the play in rehearsals very often.
“We probably only rehearsed the very ending of the play maybe 10 times during the whole rehearsal process, because they would be pretty emotionally worn out,” said Holtorf.
“We kind of put off doing the ending for a while. We really wanted to build the beginning character(s) first so the ending made sense when we got to it. Also, we didn’t want to totally wear ourselves down or even become numb to the ending,” said Hill.
Because of the morbid subject and because the only two actors in the play are women, a mother and her daughter, Holtorf said that he was told time and time again in the past not to produce this play.
“I got a lot of pressure not to do it—for a long time—because it is so emotional. And I think it’s something that a lot of people felt would be inappropriate for a man to direct. There’s a little bit of me that says, ‘Yeah, I’ll never understand.’ But I think the two actors in it, they understand it,” Holtorf said.
Hill said she believes Holtorf finally gave in to directing the show after his mother died.
“People told him (Holtorf) not to do this show for a really long time, but I think after his mom passed, he felt even more connection to it than he had before,” said Hill.
Many cast and crew members have put their own piece of themselves into the play in a way that connects them to the show.
D’Amore, the actor who plays Jessie, said that her watch broke sometime within the rehearsal process. D’Amore said she needed a replacement for the prop, “so I ended up wearing, I’m actually wearing Mark’s mom’s watch” throughout the play.
Hill went on to explain some of the other personal touches cast and crew members have made to the play. She said that Carol Stavish, the play’s scenery designer and an associate professor for fine arts at Tarleton, “would wrap the blinds’ string around the cabinet knob,” in a way just like Stavish’s mother did. Hill said that Prudence Jones, an assistant professor for fine arts, “has stuff from her own house” on set.
“I got to pick out what kind of candies I actually eat and put it on set,” Hill added. “Everybody’s got their own things. There’s little pieces of everybody here so that we all feel it even more.”
Holtorf said that he believes both the play and the actors are well-rounded.
“When they get in the flow of the play, I find it very moving,” he said. “If there’s a dry eye in the audience, I’ve failed as a director.”
“This is a lot of table-talk,” he added, “but it’s just brilliant dialogue. That’s the reason it won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s really masterfully written.”
Hill and D’Amore both hope that they can best portray the emotion of the play in their performances.
“I hope the audience really feels the genuineness of our connection on stage and really feels what we’re feeling, and I hope people feel more open about talking about suicide and how they feel,” said Hill.
“I hope that they get from it an emotional understanding of the play. (Monday) night, when we were at the table at the end, it was no longer me saying lines. It was Momma and Jessie. When I was talking to (Hill) at the table, everything was gone, audience was gone. I was just saying it as if it was actually happening. It was pretty real. So, hopefully it will reflect that on the audience,” said D’Amore.
“‘Night, Mother” is showing in the Clyde H. Wells Fine Arts Center at Tarleton every night from Tuesday, April 5, through Saturday, April 9, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5 for students with a Texan Card, $10 for adults and $8 for seniors, high school students and Tarleton faculty and staff.
“We’ve had a lot of fun at rehersal, even for such a morbid subject,” said Holtorf. “I think that’s somewhat helped us get through some of the very dark points in the play, because the play does have some really dark minutes in it.”
D’Amore said, “I hope that we can just tell the story as best as we can.”