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A PITCH-PERFECT PAIR

Put two and two together and you get an intriguing mother and daughter and a duo of philosophizing patients.

In some ways, 'Night Mother is a perfect play. There's a classical unity to Martha Norman's compact story of mother and daughter.

"I'm going to kill myself, Mama," says Jessie Cates, a frumpy woman in a baggy cardigan, as she checks off items on a list of the things her mother, Thelma Cates, needs to do to keep the household running without her practical daughter around. Clearly, this is not going to be just another Saturday night of needlework and chitchat.

For the next 90 minutes or so (a clock on the cozy kitchen-and-living-room set keeps real time), Thelma (Monica Merryman) desperately tries to persuade Jessie (Karla Hartley) to drop her determined plan to shoot herself. Of course, some truth-telling is aired, such as the real story of Jessie's parents' marriage, but for the most part, the concerns are relentlessly ordinary, from sorting through pill bottles to having one last snack of cocoa and caramel apples.

Norman's two-person play was a bombshell in 1983 when it won the Pulitzer Prize, and it still packs a punch. The will-she-or-won't-she tension is tautly maintained until the very end, in director Lisa Powers' superb production for Stageworks.

Merryman is excellent as a "plain country woman" who goes from idle talk about family and friends to harrowing acceptance of her plight. Normally, Hartley works as director, designer, stage manager and in other behind-the-scenes jobs, and now 'Night Mother shows that her talents extend to acting. She is brilliant as Jessie, with just the slightest edge of chilling malice in her pitch-perfect portrayal of the controlling daughter.

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Cold Storage, another two-person play, is more abstract than 'Night Mother. Staged by Tampa Repertory Theatre, its protagonists, a pair of hospital patients (there is also a nurse who appears briefly), don't have the family ties of Jessie and Thelma Cates, so their debate seems a bit arbitrary, like a humanities seminar on life and death. A Holocaust theme comes out of the blue at the end.

With its claustrophobic battle of wits, Ronald Ribman's 1977 play has a whiff of existentialism about it, as if Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit was set not in hell, but on a hospital rooftop patio in New York City. Parmigian (C. David Frankel) is an irritating know-it-all in a wheelchair, a produce merchant with cancer, who has figured out the secret of the universe: "There is no point!"

Landau (Jim Wicker), an art investment adviser in designer pajamas, regards Parmigian with a mix of amusement and annoyance, until he brings the windy philosophizing to a halt with the tale of his family's catastrophe in Hitler's Europe.

Frankel, unshaven and bedraggled, obviously relishes playing such a misanthrope, giving Parmigian a kind of sad-eyed resignation, the perennial wise guy contemplating the void but still yacking away. Wicker has a trickier role in the peevish Landau, who is essentially reactive, except for poetic riffs on city trees and porcelain lacquers, before he lowers the dramatic boom. Director Connie LaMarca-Frankel gives these two fine actors plenty of room to do their thing on a simple set, with traffic noise in the background.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

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If you go

Two-person plays

- 'Night Mother by Marsha Norman continues through Feb. 5 at Stageworks Theatre, 1120 E Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Run time: 1 hour, 35 minutes, no intermission. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. $24.50. (813) 251-8984; stageworkstheatre.org.

- Cold Storage by Ronald Ribman continues through Sunday in a Tampa Repertory Theatre production at the Studio Theatre of Hillsborough Community College, Ybor City campus, E Palm Avenue and N 14th Street, Tampa. Run time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, including intermission. 8 p.m. today-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. $15, $20. tamparep.org.

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