What really got me was the coffee creamer.
The scene is in the kitchen of the Cates household in the Organic Theater Factory’s unforgettable site-specific production of “ ‘Night, Mother.” Jessie, the daughter, is refilling the creamer while having an intense discussion with her mother.
It took only a few seconds for the sharp odor to float over to where I was sitting, about 15 feet away.
Up until that point in the production, I was perfectly well aware on an intellectual level that I was experiencing Marsha Norman’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning play in a private home. But it wasn’t until the creamer that the full emotional impact hit me: that I was there with them, these two troubled women, as if I’d somehow been rendered invisible and was being allowed to peek in at a very private moment in their lives.
This ” ‘Night, Mother” (continuing through Sept. 8) is a grand experiment, and you should feel privileged if you get to take part in it. Director Adam Schroeder, working with two exceptional actors — Leslie Martin as the mother and Danielle Jorn as the daughter — provide an experience that makes you feel both a voyeur and a confidante.
That experience starts when you buy a ticket online. You’re emailed a list of instructions that includes the address of the Prather home. You’re told what to do when you get to the front door. (You open it. What did you expect, an usher?) Take a seat, one of 20 that are set up in the home’s dining room, which provides a view both of the kitchen and living room, where the action takes place. If you need to use the bathroom before the show begins, find it down the hallway. (I did. It’s very much a family bathroom. The Eiffel Tower soap dispenser was a nice touch.)
Most important, you receive in that email a link to download a song list for the drive up to Prather, which takes 25 minutes or so from most parts of Fresno. Schroeder’s music selection helps set the tone for the show, further drawing you into the experience.
However you experience a production of ” ‘Night, Mother,” it’s inevitably going to be intense. Many people know the material best from the 1986 movie starring Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft. The daughter, Jessie, is depressed and divorced, a recluse. The mother, Thelma, recently has slipped into a routine of letting Jessie take care of her, even though she hasn’t really reached the age where that’s needed, perhaps because she wants her daughter to feel needed. The play takes place in real time over the course of an evening after Jessie delivers shattering news.
By staging the play in a house instead of a theater, there are exciting differences between this and a production in a traditional venue. The actors can speak at a realistic volume rather than having to project or be amplified. The blocking becomes less about sight lines and more about appearing natural. (Thus, there are several times when the actors’ backs are turned toward the audience.) There is no lighting design, just the illumination one would expect from an occupied home in the evening.
What’s left is a tremendous raw feeling as the play unfolds. In the hands of lesser actors, this frankly could be frightening. But Martin and Jorn give such honest and unadorned performances, and there’s such a crackle of chemistry between them, that it’s riveting. From the moment we see Jorn, sitting outside smoking as cars are parked and audience members arrive, she brings to her character a peculiar sensation of doggedness but also a sort of empowered nobility. Martin, who wanders into the performance space about 20 minutes before the show begins, bounces off Jorn’s weird vibes until she slowly builds to a frantic desperation. Together, they’re remarkable.
The experience is so daring that I almost hesitate to register a quibble. But, to me, Schroeder’s decision to leave the dining-room light overhead on during the performance is a small but vital distraction. I’m certainly no purist when it comes to non-traditional theater settings — I know and applaud the premise that theater can be more than just something that takes place “up there” on a stage. But there is a reason why stagecraft is so important. We’ve developed longstanding practices to heighten and strengthen the theatrical experience, most notably shrouding the spectators in darkness. Other practices bring the audience members even closer, such as using lighting design to focus their attention.
” ‘Night, Mother” does not include an audience. This isn’t a courtroom drama, say, where the jury is an assumed part of the action. There aren’t 20 people who have somehow sneaked into the Cates home to watch what’s going on inside. Instead, as an audience member I’m a lurker. The dining-room light made it harder for me to lurk, to “fall into” the world of the show, as wonderfully executed as it is, simply because I was too keenly aware of the audience members around me.
But fall I did, eventually, thanks to the power of this production: the direction, the acting, and, of course, the writing. (And the coffee creamer.) On the drive down the mountain, I listened to the talk-back track on the playlist between the director, actors and producer Anthony Taylor, and I felt as if I’d been part of a singular event. I’d attended an exhilarating, melancholy service with a full-immersion baptism. (No Presbyterian sprinkles here.) What a “Night” it turned out to be.