It was an easy trick, like shooting fish in a sappy barrel: contemporary dialogue, only two characters, a mother and daughter, neither of whom is crazy. Plus, there’s a movie with Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft to watch for inspiration. It’s a far cry from Equus (my go-to piece at the time).
Today, Marsha Norman turns 64, and as a birthday present, I would like to offer her my own version of ‘night Mother, reimagined as a sitcom starring Reese Witherspoon and Delta Burke. It’s shorter than the original, which is probably an improvement. And at least it’s better than Norman’s The Red Shoes, which was the early-90s equivalent of Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.
The scene: nighttime in a suburban kitchen. MAMA is reading a magazine while JESSIE clears the plates from the dining table…
MAMA: Thanks for making dinner. Was that a new recipe?
JESSIE: Yes ma’am. We ran out of Hamburger Helper, so I had to improvise.
MAMA: What’d you use?
JESSIE: Twizzlers and ketchup. (Laughter)
MAMA: Sorry I asked. (MAMA lifts her magazine so we can see it. It’s an old copy of Playgirl. Laughter) Do you want me to help with dishes?
JESSIE: I can handle it, mama.
MAMA: (Unfurling the Playgirl centerfold) You’re not going to change out the soap for motor oil, are you? (Laughter)
JESSIE: Oh, mama.
MAMA: Just checkin’.
JESSIE: Besides, you know we’re out of motor oil. (Laughter) I used the last of it to clean the rug in your bedroom. (Laughter)
MAMA: You did what?
JESSIE: Uh-huh. It was Mary Lambert’s idea. I told her you had big yellow spots on your rug and asked what she thought might clean it.
MAMA: Those big yellow spots were sunflowers. (Laughter)
JESSIE: What makes you think that?
MAMA: Oh, I don’t know — maybe because they were big ol’ flowers that looked like the sun? (Laughter)
JESSIE: I think you need to get your eyes checked.
MAMA: And I think you need to get your head checked for taking advice from Mary Lambert. That woman is a fool!
JESSIE: Mama! You always told me we had to speak nice about family.
MAMA: Just because Mary is my sister don’t make her family. (Laughter) That girl has been trouble since we were in diapers. You know she once tried to make Kool-Aid, but gave up because she couldn’t get eight cups of water into those tiny little packets? (Laughter)
JESSIE: Oh, mama…
MAMA: In second grade, Miss Meriwether asked her to name the capitol of California, and Mary said “C”. (Laughter)
JESSIE: Now don’t start fibbin’…
MAMA: The next year, she finished a jigsaw puzzle in six months and nearly peed herself with excitement because the box said “two to four years”. (Laughter)
JESSIE: You’ve been on the internet again, haven’t you? (Laughter)
MAMA: I love me a good blonde joke. (Laughter) Still, you have to admit, Mary ain’t the brightest bulb in the pack.
JESSIE: I don’t have to do any such thing. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go to bed.
MAMA: It’s only nine o’clock. You got a big day tomorrow?
JESSIE: No, mama. I’m going to kill myself. (Laughter)
MAMA: Ha! I’d like to see you try. You know good and well we ain’t got no gun in this house.
JESSIE: What happened to the revolver you used to keep in the nightstand?
MAMA: Pawned it for one of them newfangled 3D televisions. (Puts on 3d glasses) You wanna stay up and watch Bonanza? I bet Michael Landon’s package will jut clear out across the coffee table. (Laughter)
JESSIE: Mama, that man is dead!
MAMA: Maybe so, but my libido is alive and well and ready to roam the Ponderosa! (Laughter)
JESSIE: Well, I suppose I’ll have to find something else. Maybe I can crank up the Buick and go sleep in the garage.
MAMA: No gas. (Laughter) Had to siphon it out to run the lawnmower.
JESSIE: Mama, if you’re gonna be sucking down gasoline, I don’t see why I waste my time cookin’.
MAMA: Jessie, if you’re going to keep cooking, I need to be sucking on gasoline. Kills the aftertaste. (Laughter)
JESSIE: Fine, I’ll just polish off the contents of the medicine cabinet. That ought to do the trick.
MAMA: All’s we got is half a gallon of Milk of Magnesia, but if you wanna blow out your colon, be my guest. (Laughter)
JESSIE: Gross, mama.
MAMA: Come to think of it, after all them Twizzlers, it’d probably do you good. (Laughter)
JESSIE: ‘Night, mother.
MAMA: ‘Night, Jessie.
(JESSIE steps off-set, and the audience hears a thunderous crash from the hallway.)
MAMA: Lord have mercy, Jessie. How many times have I told you to watch out for that bric-a-brac shelf? You know I’m picky about the arrangement of my ginsu knife collection. (Laughter) Jessie? Jessie? (MAMA steps to the edge of the stage and looks into the hallway) Now how do you expect me to clean all that up? (MAMA goes to the phone and dials) Hello, Mary Lambert. Do you know how to get blood stains out of shag carpet?