The play is about a daughter, Jessie, and her mother, Thelma. It begins with Jessie calmly telling her Mama that by morning she will be dead, as she plans to commit suicide that very evening. The subsequent dialogue between Jessie and Mama slowly reveals her reasons for her decision, her life with Mama, and how thoroughly she has planned her own death, culminating in a disturbing, yet unavoidable, climax.
The scene is the living room/kitchen of a small house on an isolated country road, which is shared by Jessie and her mother. Jessie's father is dead; she is epileptic and unemployable, her loveless marriage ended in divorce; her absent son is a petty thief and ne'er-do-well; her last two jobs failed and, in general, her life is stale and unprofitable. As the play begins Jessie asks for her father's service revolver and calmly announces that she intends to kill herself. At first her mother refuses to take her seriously, but as Jessie sets about tidying the house and making lists of things to be looked after, her sense of desperate helplessness begins to build. In the end, with the inexorability of genuine tragedy, she can only stand by, stunned and unbelieving, as Jessie quietly closes and locks her bedroom door and ends her profound unhappiness in one fatal, stunning and deeply disturbing moment—a moment never to be forgotten by those who have witnessed, and come to understand, her plight.
Jessie Cates: A divorced woman who lives with her widowed mother. She is an epileptic who has experienced seizures most of her life. Nothing in life has worked out for this woman, including raising a son who turned out to be a disappointing loser. She has suffered with severe chronic depression that has never been treated. In the play, her long-standing despair has been temporarily relieved by a decision that has her uncharacteristically peaceful and talkative. The usual grayness and unsteady physical energy of this woman have given way to a new purpose that is expressed in productivity and detached humor.
Thelma "Mama" Cates: A widow, she is starting to feel her age and has easily allowed her depressed daughter to come and take care of all the details of her life. She sees life as she wants it to be, rather than how it is. She speaks quickly and enjoys talking. She is a simple country woman who never wanted much and could find a way to be happy with whatever she had, even if it meant lying to herself and others. She has no need for intimacy in relationships, but is energized by social situations.
Norman wrote the play in 1981, it was developed at the Circle Repertory Company, and it premiered at the American Repertory Theater with Robert Brustein in Cambridge, Massachusetts.This production transferred to Broadway at the John Golden Theatre with the same cast and was directed by Tom Moore. It opened on March 31, 1983, and closed on February 26, 1984, after 380 performances. It received 4 Tony Award nominations: Best Play, Best Actress in a Play (both Bates and Pitoniak) and Best Director (Tom Moore). The Broadway cast transferred to Off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre in 1984 for 54 performances.