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Death, and then the laundry

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EUGENE DOMINGO and Sherry Lara in Ian Lomongo’s Filipino adaptation of ’night, Mother. — ALICIA A. HERRERA

By Sujata S. Mukhi

Theater Review
’Night, Mother
Presented by PETA
Ongoing until March 18
PETA Theater Center,
No. 5 Eymard Drive,
New Manila, QC

“AFTER ENLIGHTENMENT, the laundry, “ is a wry Zen saying that acknowledges the alternating splendor and banality of life.

’night, Mother, PETA’s unusually intimate offering capping its 50th season, is about the banality of death, its utter ordinariness in the midst of clean clothes and an orderly house. It’s not just a day in the life of Jessie (Eugene Domingo), but her commitment to it being the last day of her life, as she matter-of-factly reveals to her mother Thelma (Sherry Lara) her plan to kill herself later in the evening.

That’s not a spoiler, that’s the main premise, which was all I remembered of the production I had seen by a repertory group in Washington DC way back in 1985. The play by Marsha Norman had won the Pulitzer two years earlier. I do also remember the malaise I felt leaving the theater, at the inevitable fulfillment of the main character’s desire, devoid of consolation.

Set in a home within a remote subdivision in Metro Manila, the play opens with mother Thelma in her duster puttering about, while her middle-aged daughter Jessie looks for a black box holding her deceased father’s gun. In the course of the conversation on stocking up on peanut brittle, doing manicures and using the washing machine, Jessie tells her mother that she intends to shoot herself that night. She is done with misery and meaninglessness, her failed relationships, and dealing with her lifelong burden of epileptic seizures. Thelma laughs it off. But as the minutes roll in real time, she realizes that Jessie is serious.

Adapted into Filipino by Ian Lomongo, ’night, Mother is a two-character tussle between choosing life versus claiming death as a right, on one’s own terms. Between one negotiator, and one who chooses not to settle. Between a mother full of terror, anger, and stunned helplessness; and a daughter who says, in pure existentialist conviction, “no.” That this is her soul’s dark night, mother. And she is going to end it.

What happens next is a taut confrontation between two actors that own the stage for an intermission-free hour-and-a-half, taking the audience on a roller-coaster ride of rationalizations and agonized realizations. Ms. Domingo as Jessie is dispassionate to a fault, making me think just for a moment that she was phoning in her performance. But I forgot that Ms. Domingo is a comedy doyenne, and in the post-show Q&A I came to see how she had so completely quashed her naturally effervescent personality with Jessie’s chilling calm.

And that calm is the pivot by which Ms. Lara’s emotions sway from incredulity to rage to tortured powerlessness as the looming reality of her daughter’s act shreds her soul. Ms. Lara is a marvelous actor, bringing an authentic, almost too painful to watch, vulnerability to her begging, and her raging against her daughter dying into eternal damnation. Amidst of all this, she delivers witty lines with impeccable timing.

Director Melvin Lee instructed that the set had to be so realistic, everything had to be functional. The faucets and stove worked, native tsokolate was cooked on the spot, and cabinets were filled with actual food items. This underscored the absurd ordinariness of Jessie’s revelation of her intention. Her suicide is literal. It is not symbolic. There is no metaphor for a larger social story. There is no song, rap or dance; no rousing anthem at the end.

Mr. Lomongo successfully contextualizes the American drama in an urban Filipino setting. The dialogue exchange is natural and fluid. There’s a meaningful, if unintended pun with the use of the word “sumpong,” meaning both a seizure and a moody petulance, and both possible reasons why Jessie chooses to end her life, according to her mother. The contemporary references are fitting. (Except perhaps for an artificial swipe at EJKs and a mention of activism in reference to an unseen character. But wait, this is a PETA play after all, that tragically, at 50 years old, is still denouncing dictators and madmen, because there still are dictators and madmen!)

But there are some dark sides to this play. We watch with anticipation on whether Jessie is true to her conviction or not. She is at peace with her decision, after all, and between the two characters seems the more stable one. We check in with ourselves to see if, for the sake of a more interesting and complex ending, we wish for her to do what she intends to do. And if she opts not to push through with it, is there a part of us that would be disappointed at the cop-out? The construct of the play then would just be a gimmick. In a time when main characters are killed off wantonly in our favorite TV or streaming shows (a rarity in the past), and social media videos make no qualms about showing footage of actual murder and mayhem to grab attention, I would hope that viewing ’night, Mother is not reduced to a mere will-she-or-won’t-she plot line, or a philosophical discussion on the right to die.

Because the other dark side is a very real urgency to address the crisis of suicide in the Philippines, particularly among the youth. PETA by its name is educational theater, and is serious in bringing attention to social issues. It makes very clear that suicide is not condoned. After the performance on preview night, coach-and-counselor-to-the-stars Randy Dellosa and a mental health expert from UP were part of a panel to field questions on mental health, and show that Jessie’s choice in the play is to be taken as a warning, not a solution. They used that opportunity to talk about the need to address dysfunction and depression, and where help can be obtained. PETA stated its commitment to having such discussions after every performance to debrief the play’s message, lest it be misinterpreted and misapplied.

Let’s hope then that as compelling a production ’night, Mother is, as clear its message should be. Choose life. The laundry can come much later.