MANILA — “Night, Mother” made its world premiere in Cambridge, Massachusetts back in 1982 but it is only now, decades later, that a professional theater company in the Philippines is mounting this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama for local audiences.
Yet despite the nearly 40-year delay, this may be an opportune time to stage this contemporary masterpiece. With the spate of high-profile suicides that have made headlines around the world, “Night, Mother” actually feels current.
Perhaps this is the reason the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), which is known for producing socially relevant original plays and musicals, has chosen to close its 50th season with this Filipino adaptation of Marsha Norman’s well-known play (it was also made into a movie in 1986).
“Coming from a history of presenting grand narratives, PETA hopes to tackle more intimate, emotionally complex, unsettling and provocative issues that involve the increasing complexity of urban modern life,” the company said in a statement.
Playwright Ian Lomongo not only translated “Night, Mother” to Filipino, he also transposed it to present-day Metro Manila — in the far reaches of Fairview, Quezon City, to be precise. This is where Thelma, a widow, lives with her daughter Jessie, who is separated from her husband.
One typical Saturday night, Jessie tell her mother about her plans to kill herself that night. For the next 90 minutes, “Night, Mother,” which unravels in real time (a working clock ticks in full display onstage as part of Ben Padero’s realistic set of an actual working living room/kitchen/dining room), provides the audience with an intimate look into the devastating effects of depression.
The necessarily talky nature of the play forces the audience to listen and observe carefully what is going on. This attention is amply rewarded as “Night, Mother” also offers gripping suspense as Thelma desperately tries to convince her daughter that life is still worth living.
Eugene Domingo, now better known as a comedienne, thanks to a string of box-office comedy hits such as “Kimmy Dora” and “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank,” may seem like a risky choice to play the suicidal Jessie. Her bubbly and hyper showbiz persona is in sharp contrast to her introverted and insecure character in this play. Yet this may prove to be a sharp casting choice after all. Not only is there interest in Domingo’s return to theater, six years after her award-winning turn in the stage adaptation of “Bona,” also for PETA, it also pushes us to look beyond our own preconceptions of what depression looks like.
Although Domingo ably suggests her character’s detachedness and imbues her with deep-seated loneliness, she also presents Jessie as logical, highly functional and even smart. Those who equate people with suicidal tendencies with loonies may be perplexed — but hopefully enlightened after watching the play during the after-show discussion with mental health professionals.
Jessie carries on her filial duties, guiding her mother on how to navigate through her everyday life without her. In the course of their 90-minute conversation, secrets are inevitably revealed, as an increasingly exasperated Thelma tries to find the right words to say that would stop her daughter from proceeding with her plan.
As such, while Domingo is no doubt the marquee attraction, it is Sherry Lara who has the showier, more difficult part as the pained mother. Lara goes through a gamut of emotions and brings the audience along with her because like her, they are also trying to understand why someone they love -- or anyone for that matter -- would want to do this.
Still, in the end, both were truly deserving of the standing ovation during a preview performance (which this writer caught) and on opening night last February 2.
But more than the performances of the two actresses, PETA’s “Night, Mother” owes much of its success to Lomongo, whose translation made the material truly connect and resonate with local audiences. In fact, if one didn’t know about Norman’s play, one would think that this was an original Filipino drama made especially for the current mood.
Director Melvin Lee’s “hyper-realistic” approach takes the material further closer to home, bringing the audience face to face with uncomfortable truths about family and loved ones. Depression is real. It’s high time with deal with it.
“Night Mother” runs until March 18 with performances from Friday to Sunday at the PETA-Phinma Theater in Quezon City.