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NIGHT MOTHER presented by Brazen-Faced Varlets at Rust Belt Books is 5/5 small-theater perfection

THE BASICS: ‘night Mother, the 1983 Pulitzer Prize winning drama by Marsha Norman presented by Brazen-Faced Varlets, directed by Lara D. Haberberger, starring Heather Fangsrud and Priscilla Young-Anker runs through March 25, Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2:00 p.m. at Rust Belt Books, 415 Grant Street (598-1585) www.varlets.com Runtime: 1 hour-45 minutes without intermission. It flies by.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  After her husband left her, thirty-something Jessie, an unemployed epileptic with an estranged low-life son, moved back home to a remote farm with her mother, Thelma, who herself suffered a loveless marriage. Now a little addled, Thelma lives primarily on wrapped candies, which are delivered to the house, as is everything else, because these women never venture out. Very early in the play, Jessie calmly tells her mother how in a few hours she will shoot herself, late enough so that she won’t ruin people’s evenings but early enough so they won’t have already gone to bed, and then she fills the time dutifully attending to her mother’s daily medications, writing down lists of things her mother will need to know, all while Thelma tries to talk Jessie out of it.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: This is the only play I’ve ever attended where you are given a tissue along with your playbill and where there is a psychiatric MD on stage for the talk-back, which happens after every performance. Is it really that intense? Yes, it’s really that intense. The fact that there are only 16 chairs in the audience and you are right on top of the action at Rust Belt Books only adds to that intensity. In case you were wondering, they do observe the “fourth wall” tradition of the theater, so there is no overt audience involvement, but, trust me, you will feel very involved.

People often say after a suicide: “I had no idea.” Well, here the suicide tells her mother (and us) soon after the play opens exactly what she is going to do, how she is going to do it, when she is going to do it, and why she is going to kill herself. The playbill quotes excerpts from an interview with the playwright, Marsha Norman, and we read “…people could get into a place where they could see no other exit – it’s not no exit; it’s no other exit – and this is the exit they take because it’s a solution to a problem they can’t solve any other way.”

I think it’s related to how most people say that they do not understand addiction, whatever the “drug of choice” because it’s so obvious to the non-addicted that engaging in risky behaviors such as drugging or drinking or shoplifting or gambling only “makes things worse” or “adds to the problems you already have.” But what they fail to realize is that drugs work. Maybe only for a short time, but they do work. They take away the pain.

And, according to the playwright, it’s the same with suicide. It is a viable solution to a problem that some people “can’t solve any other way.” It works. If you just read that and thought “that makes no sense,” then go see the play.

You may wonder if a 1983 play can feel contemporary. Yes, it can and ‘NIGHT MOTHER does.

Now, on to the production and the players…. Brava! Brava! Brava!

Now, on to the production and the players…. Brava! Brava! Brava! One good thing you’ll notice, if you’ve been over to Rust Belt Books recently, is that the stage area has been shifted 90 degrees and now the back of the stage is against the outer or back wall of the store, a decision which has widened the stage and somehow makes the seating feel more “right.” The set was effective and the props, all called for in the script, were very “natural” including the kitschy kitchen clock.

The country music selections upon entering the theater were appropriate for the place and time (you can never go wrong with Patsy Cline) and stage manager Stefanie Warnick (who was also the fight choreographer and lighting designer) was on top of things… there were no awkward moments as sometimes happens with smaller theaters.

The direction by Lara D. Haberberger was spot on. The characters stayed in character and every motion seemed completely natural, never “actorly” or over-played, while the intensity slowly built over time.

And the actors. Wow.

And the actors. Wow. An hour and forty-five minutes with an audience a few feet away. I’ve seen both Priscilla Young-Anker (Thelma) and Heather Fangsrud (Jessie) on stage before, and yes, for a few minutes I thought “Oh, that’s Priscilla” and “Oh, that’s Heather.” And then…. They just became mother and daughter, Thelma and Jessie Cates.

As the rating guide for a five of five says below (emphasis added):  Provided that this is the kind of show you’d like, you’d be fool to miss it.” So, you know what this play is all about. You know that you will be given a tissue upon entering the theater and there’s a reason for that. You know that there are only two characters on stage, so there aren’t going to be any distractions. It’s intense. And now you also know how good the play and production are. So, don’t miss it. It’s up through Sunday, March 25.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For Classical 94.5 WNED and on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists to get at answers. On “Theater Talk” his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" In every situation he's in Peter wonders: "What's the big picture here?" And, "if I had to teach this, how would I break it down to explain it?"

That's why he loves writing reviews. A show with a strong message that makes him laugh and cry and think about life is a good show. Heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM "Theater Talk" repeats Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED, the radio station where Peter is currently the afternoon drive host as well as producer and host of “Buffalo Philharmonic Live” (Sundays at 5 p.m. repeating Fridays at 10 p.m. on WNED). For the Buffalo Chamber Music Society he moderates on-stage pre-concert chats with the artists and is on-stage host of the Falletta (classical guitar) Competition.

Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business. He is currently a member of the "Artie Awards Committee."

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