By John Quinn
It was Aristotle, godfather of all theater critics, who first wrote of "catharsis." Briefly, it refers to tragedy's ability to purge an audience's emotions through the evocation of pity and fear. For all its benefits in restoring balance to the psyche, it is a painful, gut-wrenching experience. It is, quite honestly, an experience largely foreign to me until I saw Breathe Art Project's production of "'night, Mother" at The Furniture Factory.
Another wise Greek, Socrates, told his judges, "The unexamined life is not worth living," and opted for death rather than imprisonment. In "'night, Mother," Jessie Cates has examined her life and it is still not worth living. Epileptic, agoraphobic, failure as wife and parent, she lives with her aging mother in the family's rural home. In the midst of a routine Saturday night, Jessie is methodically setting affairs in order. She casually informs her mother, Thelma, she's opted for suicide – she won't be alive in the morning. The play, performed in real time as one continuous scene, is practically a textbook illustration of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It's a huge emotional burden to confine in a mere 90 minutes.
Playwright Marsha Norman won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this tragic story. One wonders if she experienced the killing presence of clinical depression in her family, as I have in mine. Jessie is clearly a victim of depression. Thelma passes along the advice of their nearest neighbor, Agnes: "You've got to keep your life full of things." Jessie hasn't. All she has is caring for "Mama." Depression is a manageable condition even when it is not curable, and that is the unspoken tragedy underlying this play. In order to be cured you must seek a cure. Thelma makes a case, "Good things don't come looking for you!" but Jessie is simply too far gone. We sit, wrapped in the tragedy of a mother bargaining for the life of her daughter, hoping that something, anything might get through to Jessie. Sorrow, pity, fear – it's all there for the audience. And do we experience catharsis? Oh yes, indeed – Aristotle would be proud of Ms. Norman.
He would be proud of the artists who brought us this production, too. Director Kevin Young gives us a powerful pair of actors to support this heavy drama: Diane Hill (Mama) and Lisa Melinn (Jessie) are an incomparable match. They thread their way through the torrent of emotion with uncommon style. More, Melinn's utter composure and resignation in the face of suicide is positively chilling. Hill portrays the grief-stricken, guilt-ridden mother with unvarnished honesty. Just watching the duo in action is a pleasure regardless of the emotional turmoil that ensues.
There is another side to catharsis – seeing tragedy staged makes our lives seem better by comparison. I certainly came away from "'night, Mother" feeling better, and even a little wiser. That's not a bad exchange for an emotional rollercoaster ride.
Breathe Art Theatre Project at The Furniture Factory, 4126 3rd St., Detroit, Friday-Saturday through April 30, plus Sunday, May 1. 248-982-4121. Then at Mackenzie Hall, 3277 Sandwich St., Windsor, Ontario, May 5-7. 519-255-7600. $20. http://www.breathearttheatre.com