We open in a tract house on the outskirts of somewhere down South. (Gorgeously rendered by set-designer Paul A. Shaw.) The mom, Thelma, is getting ready for her weekly manicure from her daughter Jessie, who announces pleasantly that once the manicure is over she'll be going off to her bedroom and blowing her brains out. The show then plays out in real time with no intermission as Thelma and Jessie fight, cry and reminisce.
And that is the schematic of Marsha Norman's 'night Mother, now playing at Off the Wall Theatre.
'night Mother received the Pulitzer in 1983, was made into a film and, for a time, was a frequent visitor at most "serious" theaters around the country.
It's been years since I've seen it, but I do remember liking it a great deal. In my flaming youth it was impossible for a play to be too depressing for me, and while my tastes now run more toward leggy chorines in pretty costumes, I was looking forward to watching a well-written downbeat drama.
So much for that plan. As it turns out, Norman's script is just about the silliest thing going, laughably bad and just shy of self-parody.
Even if you know the show only from the synopsis above, I'm sure you spotted the problem that I never noticed before: Five minutes into 'night Mother and you're just itching to shoot Jessie yourself. Manipulative, passive-aggressive, unbelievably cruel and unbearably self-indulgent, she reminded me of Paul Rudnick's immortal words in Jeffrey: "Maybe some people should have low self-esteem."
Even if Jessie hated her mother -- and Norman goes out of her way to make sure we know she doesn't -- to announce that she's killing herself and then make Thelma beg for 90 minutes is unpardonable. (And, it goes without saying, a theatrical cul-de-sac.)
The problem might not have been quite so glaring if Off the Wall director Maggie Balsley had focused more on subtext and structural build. But I dare anyone to fix Norman's glaring omissions.
Elena Alexandratos, one of Pittsburgh's most formidable and intelligent actresses, tries to find a path by playing Jessie as emotionally numbed throughout. But that solution (and Alexandratos' effort is valiant) suggests its own problem.
Virginia Wall Gruenert's Thelma, meanwhile, is an appropriate emotional maelstrom. How she managed to avoid the temptation of handing Jessie the gun -- as well as rope, lead pipe and candlestick -- is remarkable.
'night Mother continues through Oct. 16. Off the Wall Theater, 147 North Main St., Washington. 412/394-3353. www.insideoffthewall.com