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A Great 'night Mother

By Cristina V. Coletta

'night, Mother

Directed by Tom Moore

At the USA Copley Place

IN THE OPENING scenes of 'night, Mother, we observe the quiet, orderly, evening rituals of Jessie Cates the night before she kills herself. As the sun sets over a small, lower-middle-class ranch house in rural America, Jessie (Sissy Spacek) gives her full attention to the monotonous, ennerving tasks of refilling the candy dishes in the living room, taking the clean towels out of the clothes dryer, cancelling the daily paper, setting the electric light timer and so on.

As she completes each task, she crosses it off of a list which she keeps in her pocket. Her diligence is most admirable--never will you see anyone give a better demonstration of how to fold a basket-full of clothes in five minutes or less.

'Night, Mother is the screen adaptation of Marsha Norman's Tony-winning stage play about the confrontation between a mother and daughter before the daughter's suicide. In simple, elegant scenes the comfortable monotony of daily tasks is made eerie and frighteningly unusual.

Jessie enters her bedroom to put away her own pile of clean laundry, but instead of opening the drawers as one might expect, she goes directly to the closet. There she puts various articles of clothing into bags marked for Goodwill and the Salvation Army. The few knickknacks scattered around the otherwise stripped bare room get slipped into a box under her bed. Toiletries are thrown into a plastic garbage bag and deposited into the trash.

Finally, the room is empty--nothing is left behind to suggest that Jessie ever lived there. Once the bags have been shipped to their intended charities, the knickknacks replaced and probably lost among her mother's already cluttered bedroom and the garbage emptied, Jessie's existence will have been effectively obliterated. And this, as we learn later on, is just how she wants it, for it is her intention to exit from life without a trace.

The film's action--what there is of it--begins when Jessie's mother Thelma (Anne Bancroft) returns home from an afternoon at the country fair. Bubbling over with superficial spontaneity and weighted down with multifarious milk jugs slated for immediate conversion to lamps, Thelma is blissfully unsuspecting of anything unusual, like a suicide, on the horizon. "Where are my house shoes, sugar?" she gurgles. "It's still light out sugar, why don't you come see the begonias?" And so, we are not surprised to learn that Jessie no longer ventures into the outside world.

Jessie's revelation that this Saturday night will be her last comes without anger, confrontation, hysterics or tears. As she cleans and oils the revolver with which she will do the deed, she simply and quietly informs her mother that she is about to kill herself. This is no rash decision--she has been thinking about it "on and off" for no less than 10 years; "on all the time," since the previous Christmas.

FOR THE NEXT hour and a half, 'night, Mother reproduces Marsha Norman's minutely choreographed jockeying between mother and daughter, the former trying to persuade the latter to abandon her ghoulish intention and the latter holding fast to her position.

Running the gamut from emotional to logical to sneaky and underhanded, Thelma's efforts to keep her daughter alive move lickety split across the screen and will leave you gasping for breath. In one sequence, she goes from resignedly making Jessie a cup of cocoa--a pitiful last request--to throwing the pot across the kitchen in disgust at Jessie's unwillingness to salvage her own life.

As an overweight, frumpy rural homebody, Bancroft's Thelma is an inspired interpretation. Unable to make Jessie's existential leap of imagination into the great beyond, she nonetheless struggles to meet her halfway. As a mother, she is unable to let her go without a fight. As the evening wears on, however, she is forced to realize that for Jessie, survival is out of the question.

But it is Spacek who carries the film. Her portrait of a woman who calmly plans her own death, going so far as to suggest how her mother should handle herself at the funeral, is utterly convincing. Her cool exterior, absent of regret or emotion of any kind, obliterates any pity which we might feel for her. We don't end up wishing for her death, but rather realizing, as Jessie seems to have realized all along, that death is nothing more than an aspect of life which is sometimes delayed by forces beyond our control. All she is trying to do is to speed things up a little.

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