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Sheila Houlahan Captures the Nuance of Depression in a Filmed Adaptation of Night, Mother

Actress Ellen McLain updated and adapted “Night, Mother” - the 1983 Pulitzer-prize winning play by Marsha Norman - to be set in the current pandemic. Sheila Houlahan leads as Jessie, depressed daughter to country mother played by Ellen McLain. The entirety of the short takes place over a zoom call between daughter and mother as Houlahan shares that she has a plan to end her life.

Houlahan shows that depression is not a selfish immediate decision, but rather a decision based on years of pain. From her tired gaze and reflective vocal tone to the weary way she smiles, Houlahan captures the nuance of depression, enhanced in the time of isolation during the pandemic.

Houlahan and McLain performed entirely to a screen presumably without each other in the room for the majority of the film which is no easy feat. Director John Patrick Lowrie’s kept the performances largely uncut and play-like, displaying them in split screen with intercut home-movie style super 8 footage to capture memories. As Jessie, Houlahan walks the tightrope of relief and pain in admitting she can no longer go on. She cannot always pinpoint why and McLain aptly demonstrates her frustration and confusion which only reinforces Houlahan’s helplessness.

When hearing truths from her mother about how she was treated as a child, about being lied to about her epileptic disorder - she shifts from shock to empathy. She shows just how complicated hearing the truth from people you love can be, how you can somewhat understand where they are coming from but still be angry.

Even though the material is rightly tragic, Houlahan finds glimmers of light and moments to smile such as when she finds comfort in hot cocoa before continuing the tough conversation with her mother. The reality is McLain, the mother, is no therapist, and falls on defense mechanisms that only appear to reinforce Houlahan’s goal to end her life. Houlahan doesn’t have a safe space to say all that she needs to say, and may even need help navigating it. Instead of help, what she receives is a mother who makes it about herself or makes it Houlahan’s fault.

Houlahan’s desperation devolves into silence. Nothing Houlahan can say can help her mother understand her goal. Her mother isn’t actively listening, but rather only trying to control the situation to make it stop. Houlahan effectively shows her slow degradation in the conversation through small breakdowns which contrast against her mother’s loud, attention-seeking ones. Houlahan’s performance shows how she no longer wishes to be a burden, a common emotional component that comes with depression.

Even up until Jessie’s final moments Jessie is thinking of her family. Although Jessie admits to having resentment toward her family, she offers them an abundance of gifts to last them throughout the year. She has a plan to ensure they have money after she is gone. Depression is a complicated subject. It is difficult to know what to do when it affects a family member.

Houlahan handles such a complicated theme with care, and hopefully brings light to mental health while in isolation. People who are predisposed to depression deserve professional help. Not all homes have a support system that can help in times of need. Sometimes family can be the trigger.

In 2021, Night, Mother won 6 awards at the Actors Awards, including:

Best Performance of Fest (Sheila Houlahan)

Best Duo (Sheila Houlahan & Ellen McLain)

Best Actress (Sheila Houlahan)

Best Actress in a Drama (Sheila Houlahan)

Best Actress in an Indie Film (Sheila Houlahan)

Best Monologue (Sheila Houlahan)

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