‘night, Mother’s Caroline Lee on challenging theatre

A contemporary classic, ‘night, Mother is a thrilling and devastating journey through womens’ psyche.

Presented by Iron Lung Theatre, the four-time Tony nominated and Pulitzer Prize winning play has definitely made a mark in the theatre world, being referred to as ‘A Doll’s House for the 20th century.’ Acclaimed playwright Marsha Norman focuses the plot on a mother and daughter, and their tumultuous relationship coming to the crux. Daughter Jessie states that she will be killing herself that very evening, and unfolding in real time across 90 minutes, the audience are a part of the conversation leading up to the inevitable event.

Iron Lung Theatre was founded in 2018 by NIDA graduates and co-Artistic Directors Briony Dunn and Esther van Doornum. Both wanted to create an environment where artists can stage gritty and contemporary texts, and reimagine classics that were not often seen on the main stage. The pair have shifted into different roles for this production, with Briony directing, and Esther starring as Jessie Cates. They are joined by Caroline Lee as Thelma Cates, the titular mother.

Caroline Lee

A seasoned performer, Caroline has worked professionally in theatre, television, film and voiceover for over 30 years. Having worked with companies such as MTC, STC, Bell Shakespeare, Malthouse Theatre and Red Stitch, she has accrued an impressive list of credits in her theatrical career. Most recently, she was seen in Phédre (Bell Shakespeare), The Trouble With Harry (Melbourne International Arts Festival), and Waking Up Dead (fourtyfivedownstairs).

Can you tell me a bit about your performance history? What are some highlights of your career?

I started acting professionally about thirty years ago. I’ve mostly done live theatre, but have also done some wonderful film and television projects through that time. It is very hard to choose a favourite, because I do really love so much of the work I do, but a few absolute highlights might be: Alias Grace which was an adaptation of the novel by Margaret Atwood, and which had a number of seasons here in Melbourne, and then toured to Sydney, regional SA and Kuala Lumpur; Small Metal Objects with Back to Back Theatre; A Kind of Alaska by Harold Pinter at STC; The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez, which toured Victoria in 2017; and Dance Nation which I did earlier this year at Red Stitch

What makes ‘night, Mother unique?

‘night Mother is a two-hander which runs for 90 minutes in real time. That is, the time things are taking in the world of the play are happening in the same time they are taking in the theatre. These two things create a particular intensity and power to the work. Also the play investigates in great depth and complexity the mother/daughter relationship, and the language is stunning: it won a Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1983.

How have you found working on a show with an entirely female team (cast and production)?

I’ve been fortunate to be in this position a number of times in my career and it’s always wonderful.

Caroline Lee as Thelma Cates | Photo by David Paterson

The play touches on some quite heavy themes. How do you work through difficult subject matter?

One of the things that helps a lot is wearing some of my character’s costume in rehearsal. Then, when the rehearsal is over I can take those clothes off and it’s a clear way of leaving the work behind. I also try to keep a careful eye on myself to ensure that the emotional landscape of the play is not creeping too much into my everyday life. It does, inevitably, but if you know that the reason you’re a bit upset or down is because of the play, it makes it easier to manage: a bath, a nice film, getting out of town on the weekend.

How have you found working on a two-hander? How does it differ from more ensemble pieces?

I love it. It’s like being on a seesaw, you are always in direct relationship to the action and to the other character, so it’s very active and very dynamic.

Do you have any advice for actors who are trying to push out of their comfort zone?

Work with people you haven’t worked with before, do a play of a different genre, do a class with new people, a workshop, a voice class, learn a new skill: singing, flamenco, painting. It all serves your work.

Why should audiences come and see ‘night, Mother?

It is high-quality, thought-provoking, inspiring theatre. Why wouldn’t you come?


‘night, Mother runs at Melbourne’s Chapel off Chapel from August 7th-17th.

Tickets available at the Chapel off Chapel website or by calling 03 8290 7000

More information on the show can be found at Iron Lung Theatre’s website.

Please note – this production contains strong adult themes including suicide.

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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