More Dynamic Conflict Between Two Women

Selina Sullivan (left) and Miriam Frazier in a touching moment.

For the second time in about six months, Roanoke live theater audiences are being treated to a powerful drama featuring two women in a life/death situation.

Writer Ben Jolivet’s astonishing “Cold” started the mini-trend at Mill Mountain Theatre, featuring memorable performances by Emma Sala and Bonny Branch in a two-woman cast. Last night I watched Miriam Frazier and Salena Sullivan in Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “‘night, Mother” at Off the Rails (Community High School) and was again taken aback.

The first dealt with two lesbian mothers trying to face the impending death of their child and last night’s play focused on the planned suicide of a daughter, living with her mother and announcing her death was imminent.

As you might imagine, this play is infused with drama, mood swings, arguing the unreasonable, tender moments and ultimate catastrophe. It is a relatively short play–especially for OTR–and not a moment is wasted in this emotional tour de force. Miriam Frazier–one of the founders of OTR–is on the stage in a rare appearance and her Thelma Cates is riveting. Salena Sullivan is given the task of making the daughter’s suicide look reasonable and rational … and she does.

All this is put together by Roanoke theater veteran Rachel Sailer, a solid director and fine actor in her own right. Rob Bessolo’s set borders on the lavish and is spot-on, especially with the touches of early 1980s authenticity (including a stack of TV Guides and that god-awful ochre cabinetry in the kitchen) by Sarah Halstead, who’s great with the details.

As with “Cold,” this play feels like voyeurism in its intimate look inside a private evening of two women whose world has shrunk to non-existence. Daughter Jessie, an epileptic whose husband has left and whose son is in prison, goes nowhere, does nothing of substance, has no interests and is devastatingly unhappy. Her mother lives much the same life, but has no complaints to speak of. So, when Jessie talks suicide, Thelma is mortified, argumentative, shrill, pathetic and even sympathetic.

This mixes the mundane chatting of a mother and daughter–“Can I do your nails now, Mom?”–with screaming outbursts and it is draining, in the way live theater can be.

“‘night, Mother” runs weekends through August 5 at the June McBroom Theater at Community High School. Tickets are $15. Except for Sunday 2 p.m. performances, the play begins at 8 p.m. For reservations, call 540-676-1415.

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