'Night Mother: Striving for Truth in Mental Illness

Dark and Stormy Productions isn’t shying away from ‘Night, Mother, but artistic director Sara Marsh isn’t taking any chances, either

Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp. Sally Wingert and Sara Marsh in 'Night, Mother.
Sally Wingert and Sara Marsh star in Dark and Stormy Production’s performance of ‘Night, Mother

Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Dark and Stormy Productions is not a stranger to difficult plays. The Minneapolis theater company’s 2015 performance of Extremeties, a play where a woman imprisons her would-be rapist after he breaks into her home is a clear example of that, as is, in a different manner, its most recent play, The Maids, which is a blurring and shifting script about two maids who want to torture their employer. The trick of plays like these is to have both a script and an execution that pushes past the shock value to reveal the substance underneath, and their upcoming production Night, Mother is no different. From Aug. 16 through Sept. 8, audiences at the Grain Belt Warehouse will be privy to a 90-minute, real-time conversation between a mother and a daughter who plans to take her own life by morning.

The 1983 Pulitzer-winning play by Marsha Norman had been sitting on artistic director Sara Marsh’s bookshelf for a while, but it wasn’t until she and Wingert were looking for another play to do together a couple of years ago that she cracked it open. The two were deep into the run of And So It Goes, a play where a couple tries to start anew with their daughter who has schizophrenia and their estranged son. Performance after performance, people told Marsh how And So It Goes made them reflect on their experiences with mental illness, so when Night, Mother came to Marsh’s attention, it just seemed to fit. It had the acting parts, it delved more into mental health, and it truly moved both her and Wingert when they finally read it together for the first time in the dressing room. 

When Marsh talks about the play, you can hear the care and effort she is putting into her words, not only in describing the play but also the depression and suicidal thoughts that it grapples with. Marsh would go on tangents about the different types of suicidal thoughts and emphasized how much care she put into trying to learn about such a pervasive mental illness that she herself did not have. She met with people who suffered from depression and people who have had suicidal thoughts who were willing to share their experiences, and she put in hours and hours to learn the research on it, both qualitative and quantitative. “To talk about it, you say ‘dying by suicide.’ We no longer use the phrase ‘commit,’” she adds.

Because of the themes in the play, the company has partnered with the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for post-show discussions on Aug. 24, Aug. 30, and Sept. 5 to be a resource in any way the audience needs.

“We are working very hard just as we did with And So It Goes to make sure that we are representing depression and suicidal depression and this particular form of it with the utmost respect and care and accuracy as possible,” Marsh says. “That’s the one thing I want to say for people who might be concerned about that, is that I’m doing the very best I can to do that.” 

Buying a ticket to ‘Night, Mother almost seems like you’re asking for a sucker punch to the gut and that you should prep your pick-me-up ahead of time. But you have to remember that while the play centers on an extreme moment in time, it is also about the norms of humanity. If you are at all concerned about the content, Marsh recommends you look up the play to decide what is best for you, but she hopes that the general topics don’t scare people away. As she puts it, the play isn’t a dirge—there are moments of humor—and more importantly, there is timeless relevancy to it. ‘Night, Mother is a way to hear language put to the inner turmoil that follows some wherever they go, and it is, in a way, a bare examination of life and the people in it.

“They’re people. They’re quirky and interesting, and sometimes it’s funny when people are trying to communicate, and sometimes it’s terribly sad,” Marsh says. “When it comes down to it, it is two people trying to understand each other, trying to communicate, trying to be loved, trying to love, and that’s what we’re all trying to do.”

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