MANILA -- Actor-writer Ian Lomongo was battling depression when he wrote his first adaptation into Filipino of “Night, Mother,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning 90-minute play by American playwright-novelist Marsha Norman that is opening Friday night at the Philippine Education Theater Association’s PETA-Phinma Theater.
It was in 2011 when his friend, theater artist-teacher JK Anicoche of Sipat Lawin Ensemble, asked him to write the adaptation to be used for his classes at the Philippine High School for the Arts. Early that year, Lomongo’s younger sister, Carmina, died due to a rare disease called Stevens-Johnson Syndrome.
“Hindi naman siguro clinical 'yung condition ko but plodding through the script, sentence by sentence, some lines gave me insights about how my sister probably felt, even though she didn’t commit suicide,” Lomongo told ABS-CBN News. “The process helped, have taught me to be more compassionate and emphatic.”
Being an occasional drinker, Lomongo admitted he found solace in alcohol. “The (social) drinking was already there before she died but on the other hand, yes, (at the time] I drank to somehow to ease the pain,” he added.
Call it catharsis but after finishing “Night, Mother,” instead of wallowing in misery, Lomongo plunged into writing more adaptations, acting for the stage and indie films. He worked with some of the finest local auteurs like Khavn dela Cruz (“Edsa XXX,” “Ruined Heart”) and Lav Diaz (“Norte,” “Mula Sa Kung Ano Ang Noon,” “Panahon ng Halimaw”).
In 2017, he was contacted by actor-director Melvin Lee of PETA to revise and update his adaptation of “Night, Mother,” which will serve as the theater group’s final offering for its 50th season.
Running for 90 minutes without break, “Night, Mother” is a straight play about mother-and-daughter relationship, tackling depression and suicide. In short, it is not meant to be funny. The mother is sexagenarian widow named Thelma. She allows her daughter Jessie, a divorcee in her mid-40s, to take care of her. Jessie is epileptic and has suffered chronic depression. Thelma, despite her age, has a bit of positivity in her. The story revolves on their final conversation as Jessie reveals to Thelma her plans to take her own life.
Tribute to ‘Mother’ Soxie Topacio
Lee said it is his homage to the late actor-director and PETA pioneer Soxie Topacio.
“Malaking influence sa akin bilang theater artist and director, lumaki ako sa guidance and mentoring ni Mother Soxie. I also dedicate this to my real mother, Nelly, who taught me the value of perseverance and determination. And how to be a good person.”
The story goes that on his death bed, Topacio was thinking about “Night, Mother.”
“He was supposed to direct it and he was worried he might be too weak to do it,” said Lee, one of Topacio’s younger friends and mentorees in PETA.
Pure coincidence, the ever-jolly and positive-thinking Topacio was fondly called “Mother Soxie” by friends and workmates alike. As it turned out, the title of the play was often used, unknowingly, as parting words by well-wishers whose hospital visits extended after dinner time.
“’Night, mother Soxie,” they said, before leaving him in his room. The 65-year-old Topacio succumbed to lung cancer on July 21 last year.
“Ako ang pinamanahan ng koronang mag-direk ng play but I’m too young pa naman to be called mother,” Lee said in jest. Taking over the directorial job after Topacio’s passing, part of the challenge was how to convince the audience that the dialogues his actors -- Sherry Lara and Eugene Domingo -- will deliver on stage is not a punchline, or a prelude to a joke.
Branded as a comedienne
Domingo said theater is her way of maintaining balance in her career. “Dito bumabalik ang disiplina,” she said before the punchline, “Of course marami akong tini-take na drugs.”
Everybody knows her hilarious characters in film and television. In theater, it was nearly six years ago when she played the title role in Layeta Bucoy’s stage adaptation of “Bona.” The play version staged in PETA, coincidentally, was directed by Topacio.
After her long absence in theater, she’s glad to be back and embrace the discipline. “Natutuwa ako na kaya ko pa pala mag memorize ng 76 pages, dere-derecho. Kasi sa pelikula or TV, scene per scene. Sa TV nga, aaminin ko hindi na ako nagbabasa ng script. Pinapasabi ko na lang.”
Domingo admitted part of the challenge is the notion that most audience members see her comic persona. “So papaano ipapakita sa mga nasanay. Pero mag-focus din tayo sa material. The real challenge for me is to relate to the character na pasuko na, na gusto nang lumaya, sa lahat ng sakit na nararamdaman nya,” she said.
“Night Mother” is not new to Domingo. In the 1990s, while taking up her BA in Theater Arts at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, she played Thelma. It was for the thesis requirement of her fellow Theater Arts major, Harlene Bautista.
Domingo was in her early 20s then and playing Thelma, who is in her 60s, required much effort. “Now, I am at the right age in playing Jessie,” said the 46-year-old Domingo before another punchline. “Kasi naman napakabata ko pa for Thelma.”
She said she learned from the play what’s important in any relationship. “Bata pa lang ako, lahat sinasabi ko. Kaya tanggap ko lahat ng katotohanan. Kahit masakit, tatanggapin ko. Eto na 'yun. Importante yung conversation. Ang swerte nating mga Pilipino. Mahilig tayong magsalita.”
Sherry Lara played two roles in PETA’s restaging of “Care Divas” last year, where she acted with Lee. But among the many characters that Lara’s known for in recent years, what is ebbed in the memory of most younger theater goers was her portrayal of high-school principal Prof. Caracol in Eljay Deldoc’s hilarious riot of a play, “Ang Goldfish ni Prof. Dimaandal” (2014-2015). When Prof. Caracol speaks, she mispronounces words beginning with “p” and “f” and we personally saw audience members falling from their seats in laughter.
“If there’s something I learned, that is makisama ka sa co-actor mo. Work amicably, peaceably as we can,” said Lara before the punchline, “Kasing dalawa lang naman kami eh. Wala talagang choice.”
They started rehearsing their lines in November last year. “And the play will run until March,” she added.
On a serious note, Lara said the play is about being trapped in a traditional mother-and-daughter relationship in a patriarchal society. “They’re trapped in a space where they were never able to talk to each other, but tonight when the daughter said, 'I’m gonna go, mom,' that’s it.”
She added it reminds everyone on the importance of having a good conversation. “To talk with somebody who’s really there. Whether it will offend or not. The kind of talk that you really listen to each other. You can talk to somebody who is there (physically) but who isn’t really there.”
From Laguna to Fairview
As for the setting, Lomongo said he had difficulties at first considering there’s the economic gap between the Philippines and the United States.
“Ang medyo low-middle class noong 1983 ay magiging upper-middle class sa Pilipinas. Sino ba ang merong washing machine noong 1980s maliban sa medyo nakaririwasa ang pamumuhay? Ikalawa, paano iimadyinin ang pagkakabukod ng mag-inang Jessie at Thelma sa Pilipinas, kung saan palasak ang extended families?”
His 2011 version was set in a subdivision in a provincial town along Laguna de Bay; this time he imagined a household somewhere in Fairview, Novaliches.
There will be playdates when medical experts would offer talk-balk with the audience, said Leloi Arcete, Peta’s communications manager. She mentioned the names of licensed psychologist Agnes Agbayani and Dr. Randy Dellosa of Life Change Recovery Center; and Dr. Rene Samaniego, president of Philippine Psychiatric Society.
Said PETA president CB Garrucho: “After the show, people will want to converse about it. ‘Yung walang judgement. Mas maganda to get the conversation going.”
But why did Peta decide to stage a 90-minute straight play with two actors, coming from big musicals and programs like “Care Divas,” “A Game of Trolls,” “Festival of Windows” and “Ang Buhay ni Galileo,” among others?
“We want to simplify, balik kami into something very personal, text-based and for contemplation," said PETA artistic director Maribel Legarda. "Coming from a big ballet, ‘Night, Mother’ is our ‘pas de deux.’”
She added: “Pandagdag din sa aming kadunungan bilang artist-teachers. The material is very timely. Living in Metro Manila alone nowadays is emotional trauma, di ba?”
Lomongo echoed Legarda’s sentiments. “Hindi kaya, sa hirap ng mga nagaganap ngayon dito sa Pilipinas, ‘nagpapatiwakal’ tayo bilang isang bansa? Hindi naman siguro. Huwag naman sana. Hindi pa huli ang lahat.”
And true to PETA’s main advocacies, in a subtle way, has “’Night, Mother” become a socio-political play?
(“Night, Mother” runs from February 2 to March 18 at PETA Theater Center.)