Apocalyptic vision of despair, brutality

Revival of ‘Mud’ runs gamut of unhappy emotions
By Hedy Weiss
Chicago Sun-Times

Two horrific visions of man’s fate (and man’s inhumanity to fellow human beings) are now on view on Chicago stages. Both are the work of women. Make of that what you will. But be warned: Neither is for the meek.

Opening Sunday night at the Building Stage was the Hypocrites’ altogether arresting revival of “Mud,” a 1983 work by Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes. The play can easily be seen as a companion piece to the lurid yet poignant revival of Sarah Kane’s “Blasted,” already running at A Red Orchid Theatre. As for which is the more brutal, despairing, grimly apocalyptic vision, it is difficult to say.

Director Sean Graney and designers Courtney O’Neill (set) and Jared Moore (lights) have certainly devised a riveting form of presentation for “Mud.” The entire 75-minute drama takes place within a vast aquarium — the quintessential glass house — as the audience peers in through the large windows of a giant glass “tank.” Theatergoers can either remain perched on benches and observe the drama from a single viewpoint, or stroll around the four sides of the contained performance space and see it from different angles.

The family we look in on is a variation on that hateful yet descriptive term, “poor white trash.” What we see is a rural shack, planted in the mud, where Mae (Halena Kays in a performance of breathtakingly raw emotion, physical bravery and superb technique) lives with Lloyd (a chillingly good Geoff Button), who is neither husband nor brother, but with whom she has had intimate relations.

Mae earns a living for both herself and the useless Lloyd by slaving away as a laundress, and her ironing board and iron are ever-present tools, with a big metal chute in the roof serving as a drop for piles of dirty laundry. But Mae also is hellbent on self-improvement and so attends classes at school. This causes deep, violent resentment in Lloyd, who, as the play opens, just happens to be suffering from a genital disease and related impotence.
Mae more or less holds her own against Lloyd, but she craves a more humane and uplifting relationship, and her older neighbor, Henry (Robert McLean, in neat volatile shifts from nerdy to aggressive), initially supplies that. She takes him into her bed, turning Lloyd into something of the family dog. But not surprisingly this menage a trois is destined to deconstruct as issues of love, money, dependence, sexual jealousy and power come into full play. Mae’s desperate attempts to escape the mud and misery of her existence are fated to fail.

Graney has a natural feel for Fornes, a playwright who can blend the primal, the absurd and the tragic to strange and potent effect. And this unique production — fierce and graphic — proves it.