There is no doubt that Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama " 'night, Mother," now being produced by Fairlington Players, is a terrifying thing to watch.
There is no evil, bitterness or acrimony. There is no vicious violence, harsh words or deep injustice. In fact, the proceedings, set in an average middle-class home on a typical evening, could be called mundane.
But it is in that everyday setting that the lives of a mother and daughter take a chilling turn, and the audience is served up an ethical dilemma of enormous proportions.
The question is posed quickly and clearly. Thelma (Louise Reynolds) and her daughter Jessie (Linda High) are spending a dull Saturday evening at their home way out on a country road. They do laundry, prepare for a manicure, talk of trivialities.
Only in faint echoes does the impending doom gather, as Jessie searches for her father's old gun in the attic, insisting that she wants it for protection from prowlers.
But that excuse falls away only 10 minutes into the play. "I'm going to kill myself, Momma," says Jessie matter-of-factly.
The statement hits the audience as it hits Thelma -- joking disbelief turns to horror.
Jessie is not kidding, and, perhaps worst of all, she believes she has very solid reasons for doing it. Playwright Norman deftly challenges the precept that suicide is not the answer. Jessie has tried everything to stay alive and nothing has worked.
"I'm not giving up; this is the other thing," she says of her options.
Thelma reacts much the same way anyone might. "Why you're not even upset, you're as normal as they come," she argues sensibly.
It is the first in a series of arguments she uses trying to convince her daughter that life is worth living. Thelma offers to listen more, to get rid of people Jessie dislikes, even to make hot chocolate and rearrange the furniture.
But for Jessie, who is "cold all the time," Thelma's attempts fall away one by one. "I'm just not having a good time," she says simply. "And I have no reason to believe they are not going to get any worse."
And, indeed, it's true. Her husband has left her, her son is a crumb, she has no job skills and suffers from epilepsy. Mostly, she realizes, she will never become much of a person.
Individually, all seem surmountable, but added all together in Jessie's mind, there is only one answer to free herself from the horror of reality.
" 'night, Mother" demands gut-kicking performances from its two characters, and both women here deliver them.
As Thelma, Reynolds gives a more realistic performance, managing to handle this tragic test with courage, humor and emotion. Her fight to keep her daughter alive is epic.
Rice's Jessie is a little flat, though perhaps monotone is right for someone whose soul has been exhausted. She, too, is brave in her own way, making a frightening decision that is all her own.