In ISIS Productions’ “Night, Mother” by Marsha Norman, Jessie makes the case with a singular clarity that she wants to end her life with dignity, even in a world without the resources to do so. By the end of the show I realized, this was her choice to make and not a choice that I have a place in passing judgement on.
It’s a typical Saturday night, and Thelma (Renee Richman-Weisband) is ready to have her nails manicured by her daughter Jessie (Kirsten Quinn). They have a routine, and at first, it seems like both people have settled into this comfortable domesticity. Suddenly, Jessie asks where’s Daddy’s gun and Thelma learns that Jessie plans to end her life. Over the course of 90 minutes it becomes clear that this decision is not rash, and her decision is resolute. There is no frenzy in her voice, Jessie is precise and purposeful as she explains to her disoriented mother why the decision to end her life is the right one.
The dialogue between this mother and daughter is unadorned. Jessie is very matter of fact as she lists out the mundane details behind the chores that she typically completes, that her mother will now have to manage. Jessie’s words, stripped down to its bare meaning communicates one thing: that she does not fear dying, but instead fears the sadness she must bear if she stays alive.
In this Neil Hartley directed production, the door leading to Jessie’s room takes center stage and provides the nail-biting tension that the dialogue sometimes lacks. The room is where Jessie plans on ending her life and its door is a threshold that Jessie is physically trying to cross, and Thelma is blocking with all her will. As the evening goes on, both move closer and closer to the door, a gravitational pull towards a decision that Jessie is steadfast in, and that Thelma cannot deter her from.
Richman-Weisband’s performance as Thelma is an ode to the caregivers of those who suffer from mental health issues. Richman-Weisband captures the growing desperation of a caregiver who has little left to give but wishes she could give more. But this desperation gives way to bullying as Thelma tries to inflict the same pain she feels herself by telling Jessie that she was considered the runt of the family. But she delivers these words without bite, bumbling through the insult and quickly realizing she didn’t mean what she said. Thelma is clearly grappling with the misunderstood low-hanging fruit of the situation: if her daughter wants to die then she must not be enough as a mother, a friend, as a support system.
Neither character is being fair to the other. It isn’t fair for the mother to assume that her wellbeing is reason enough for Jessie to stay alive and it isn’t fair for Jessie to ask Thelma to be a bystander in her suicide. It’s unfairness borne out of desperation and its heartbreaking to watch.
Jessie’s struggle with epilepsy sheds a light on a very common struggle with mental health faced by chronically ill people. Chronically ill individuals are at higher risk of experiencing depression, with an increased prevalence ranging from 9.3% to 25%, depending on which study you look at. Chronic symptoms, such as Jessie’s frequent seizures, can impact quality of life and lead to a sense of helplessness along with a low sense of self-worth.
“Night, Mother” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983, 14 years before Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) was legalized in Oregon, the first U.S, state to do so. Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands allow PAS where “the patient’s suffering must be unbearable with no prospect of improvement” also noting that “the suffering need not be related to a terminal illness and is not limited to physical suffering.” Jessie’s decision today now has a systemic solution to navigate through, despite all of its barriers. If Jessie was one of the few who get approved for PAS she could have been supported and facilitated by healthcare professionals, demonstrating the foresight that Marsha Norman had in her portrayal of suicide.
Personally, that is what makes Jessie’s suicide so horrifying. I did not question her decision but felt so pained to see her carry out that decision without the resources that could have made the process humane and dignified for both Thelma and Jessie.
Night Mother is on at Neighborhood House until March 27th. You can buy tickets here.