Whether it was in the performance, particularly in the final moments – Thelma’s (Caroline Lee) grief, visceral, her body twisting from guilt and the loss of her daughter, Jessie (Esther van Doornum) – or the fact I witnessed (and continue to witness) my own mother in the time following my brother’s suicide nearly six years ago, the content warning for ‘night, Mother was woefully deficient.
Wrapping it up among the pre-show voice-over business of the Acknowledgement of Country and a reminder to turn your phones off in the few seconds before the show and declaring a lockout felt – later leaving the space more tentative and affected than when we went in – more than a little unfair.
In the days since, however, you realise that if the show wasn’t moving, beautiful, and superbly acted and directed, then this wouldn’t even be a problem.
Because the show is moving: At the start of a devastating evening, Jessie tells her mother, Thelma, of her intention to kill herself that night. Jessie is resolute in her decision, trying to convince Thelma to let her go, even as Thelma tries to convince her to stay.
Because the show is beautiful: the Chapel off Chapel space can be tricky to dress, but Juliette Whitney’s set design is a lovely floating living room, with enough drab to make it feel lived in.
Because the show is superbly acted and directed: there’s such tension between the desperate stakes and the understated way both actors perform. It would be easy to overcook things, make the emotions artificially large and one-note. Playwright Marsha Norman has written a careful text that requires nuance, space, and commitment, which Esther and Caroline provide in spades.
Both do that very fine thing of being relaxed on stage, yet utterly driven. Apart from some slightly inorganic moments when Caroline was placed in the corner looking out through the fourth wall instead of as Esther, director Briony Dunn has worked with her cast to tell this story with truth and heart.
Sometimes difficult stories are the most necessary, and with a short season, this work from Iron Lung Theatre shouldn’t be missed!
The Loft – Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran
Performance: Thursday 8 August 2019 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 17 August 2019
For more information, visit: www.ironlungtheatre.com for details.
Image: Caroline Lee and Esther van Doornum feature in ‘night, Mother – photo by Pia Johnson
Review: David Collins