This Pulitzer prizewinner from 1983 had its British première at Hampstead in 1985. Directed by Artistic Director Roxana Silbert, it is presented as one of the theatre’s ‘Hampstead Original’ series of revivals originally intended to celebrate its 70th birthday pre-pandemic in 2019.
The play starts with grandmother Thelma Cates (Stockard Channing) struggling to reach an impossibly high kitchen shelf to get her hands on some marshmallow cakes: she has a passion for sweet things. That’s just the first of the facts we are fed in the opening minutes, followed by her daughter Jessie collecting towels and plastic sheeting together and climbing up into an attic to search for her late father’s gun and, if you are paying very close attention, you’ll pick up that Jessie is an epileptic.
What is Jessie up to? Not dyeing her hair as Thelma first thinks. No, as Jessie soon tells her, “I’m going to kill myself, Mama.” The rest of the play has her getting ready to do so: checking off lists of things to get done beforehand from clearing out the fridge and placing grocery orders to prearranged birthday presents for future years and giving Mama instructions for what to do after. Meanwhile, as Mama tries to dissuade her, they talk about neighbours, Jessie’s failed marriage, the coldness between Thelma and the father for whom Jessie had such love.
Despite the incidental detail and the tension between Jessie’s control and Thelma’s guilt-tinged, ineffective argument, the performance lacks drama. Apart from a couple of outbursts with Mama throwing things about in her frustration, it is too much on the same note and, despite the clarity of Stockard Channing and Rebecca Night’s playing, it is difficult to care much about this bickering mother and daughter.
There is an unreality about Ti Green’s setting with its shiny big cooking stove, spaced-out furniture and skyscraper shelving that suggests something less naturalistic. Roxana Silbert’s direction allows a few moments of humour but there could be more laughter and by contrast that would give vitality to the drama.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton