Though born in Louisville, Kentucky, none of Marsha Norman’s plays displays any regionalism or mannered characterization. All portray essentially simple people facing some moment of overwhelming crisis. Norman’s gift for portraying American life resembles that of Arthur Miller, though without political overtones. She writes psychological portraits, as does Tennessee Williams, except without regionalism. Her taut style resembles that of Samuel Beckett, but her plays are entirely realistic. This eclecticism, somewhat paradoxically, is the essence of her originality.
The plots of her plays follow similar patterns. The protagonist of Getting Out (pr. 1977) is Arlene Holsclaw, paroled after serving an eight-year prison term for robbery, kidnapping, and manslaughter. Arlene wishes to amend her life and be quiet, reserved, and even refined, but her alter ego, Arlie, invades her apartment on her first day of freedom in an attempt to force Arlene to return to her old ways. Third and Oak (pr. 1978) is a pair of one-act plays that explore a similar theme. In The Laundromat, a widow and a woman trapped in a loveless marriage meet by chance and compare the ironic similarity of their lives. The companion play, The Pool Hall, is a parallel conversation between the owner of the hall and the son of a famous pool shark. The hallmark of Norman’s plays is a plot that deals with personal frustrations and unrealized hopes, and ’night, Mother is an excellent example of her talent for portraying Everyman’s—and Everywoman’s—problems and failures. ’Night, Mother is her best-known play. It was performed on Broadway in 1982 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983.