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Answering the unanswerable

After a 20-year absence, playwright Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning work " 'Night, Mother" is returning to Broadway, thanks to the fortuitous combination of acting talent and directorial enthusiasm.

Offers had come over the years to revive the Tony-nominated drama that debuted in 1983 and starred Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak. But none of those worked out, and Ms. Norman was resigned to the idea that the piece would be primarily the domain of college students.

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"I was prepared for the play to remain in its faraway, distant self," she says in a recent interview with reporters. The play is studied in college, "so consequently [people] all think I'm dead," she jokes.

All that may change when " 'Night, Mother" officially opens on Broadway Nov 14. Even if Norman's name isn't rolling off people's tongues, the latest duo to perform the play likely will be. Edie Falco from HBO's "The Sopranos" dons a wig of long brown hair to star as the troubled daughter, Jessie Cates, opposite British actress Brenda Blethyn as the candy-loving Momma/Thelma Cates. Michael Mayer, who shepherded the musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie" to a Tony win, is directing.

Very little tweaking had to be done to what Mr. Mayer calls a "timeless play" to make it contemporary after two decades (a movie version was released in 1986). The drama takes place in real time over 90 minutes and explores how a mother reacts when her daughter announces that before the night is out she plans to kill herself.

During the course of the evening, Jessie tries to prepare her mother for her absence - explaining how to order groceries, for example, and how to answer questions about the suicide at the funeral. Jessie's mother tries to convince her only daughter and housemate that she has reasons to stick around. The two also delve into subjects they haven't broached before, revealing long-hidden secrets.

Despite the subject's gravity, each of the stars felt the story was too engaging and deep to pass up - and that the play deals with more than just suicide.

" 'Night, Mother' has intense plot stuff in it, but I think it is really, without [sounding] grotesque, a celebration of being human," says Ms. Falco, who last appeared on Broadway in 2002 in Terrence McNally's "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune." Among the hopeful issues the play explores, she says, is "How can I stay present in the relationships I'm in? I think, among other things, that is one of the things [audiences] may leave the play with."

Norman wrote the piece after several people with whom she was close committed suicide. She wondered whether one could stop a person from taking his or her life and whether people experienced agony or freedom in their final moments.

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"I just didn't know, and I wanted to know," she says.

Her approach to the play was to put somebody else in the room, somebody "who has the right to claim [the other person's] life, who has the right to say 'Don't leave me, Jessie,' " she explains.

Her exploration of the issue is not without its light moments - enough of them that the actors had to stop rehearsals sometimes because they were laughing so hard. The play also questions how well people know their loved ones.

"I think we always assume that we know our nearest and dearest and I don't think we do know them very well at all. We're just used to them," says Ms. Blethyn. "When my dad died, I spent a lot more time with my mom, and I really got to know her. And it was such a gift.... This play kind of gets straight to that. Here's two women, a mother and a daughter who, through circumstances, are forced to reexamine themselves."

In the years since she wrote " 'Night, Mother," Norman has had children of her own (she's also written musical versions of "The Secret Garden" and "The Color Purple"). She says over time she's gone from relating to Jessie to relating to Momma - from focusing on how to protect the surviving mother, to how to react if you only had an hour and a half to save your child. "It's an idea that's so upsetting to me now, that I can't help but see the play in a different way."

"What I feel now," she explains, "is that the play is this demonstration of an extreme moment between two people who love each other."

Without wanting to sound preachy, she goes a step further and says it's important that people in general take the time to get as close to each other as they can. "That's what I think makes people feel good about the play. That ... these two women move closer and closer together, so that by the end they know each other in a way they never did before. Jessie's right when she says it's this next part [the suicide] that's made this last part [the talking] so good. I would hope that we don't all have to get to death's door before we have these conversations."


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