Surreal “Mud” examines lives of three desperate people

by Barbara Vitello
Daily Herald

Not many Chicago ensembles would wade into Maria Irene Fornes’ “Mud.”

Having done so, fewer still would deliver as provocative an evening of theater as The Hypocrites. Frequently unsettling and occasionally harrowing, the company’s bold re-imagining of the play is unforgettable.

But it’s not for everybody.

Not everyone will embrace Fornes’ surreal fantasia about people trapped by poverty, gender and their own ignorance. Not everyone will appreciate the Cuban playwright’s harshly poetic dialogue, hauntingly inarticulate characters and explicit subject matter. The despairing, disquieting “Mud” is no day at the beach. Misery, violence and hopelessness hang over it like the foul stench over a city dump, but adventurous theater lovers who invest their time won’t leave disappointed.

For that they can thank Sean Graney, whose imaginatively staged productions consistently intrigue; an inventive creative team including set designer Courtney O’Neill, lighting designer Jared Moore and sound designer Michael Griggs; and Halena Kays, Geoff Button and Robert McLean, impressive actors who bring emotional depth to an aggressively theatrical production.

Kays plays Mae, an impoverished, poorly educated young woman determined to educate and extricate herself from her subsistence existence. Mae lives with, cares for and sleeps with Lloyd (a fearless, frightening Button) an unwell, unbalanced, uncivilized man-child. Into this perversion of domesticity comes Henry (a nicely tempered performance by the versatile McLean) a fussy, slightly better educated, older man Mae believes can teach her what she needs to know to escape her prison.

Kays’ intense performance is a riveting combination of rage and anguish underscored by vulnerability and nobility. Her pain cuts like a knife. Her desperation breaks your heart.

Tension and violence between the unhappy trio escalates as the men compete for the attention of Mae, the play’s least damaged, but most tragic character who feels most acutely the pain of unrealized dreams. Their relationships degenerate into a series of violent outbursts followed by Mae’s futile attempts to restore civility and dignity to their squalid lives. Frustrated by their inability to escape their prison, their despair spurs them to increasingly cruel and violent behavior.

All this misery unfolds in Mae’s ramshackle, junk-strewn hovel (an ingenious set by O’Neill) that appears to be located in the middle of a swamp. The set itself is contained inside a giant tank (another inspired visual from a director with a keen eye for them), which has windows through which the audience views the action.

The show is designed to be “actively experienced,” meaning audience members may walk around the tank, observing the action from all angles (lights indicate the best vantage point for each scene) over the course of the 75-minute play. At Sunday’s opening, most people staked out a spot near the large windows at either end of the stage where a few benches offered limited seating.

As a result, watching “Mud” is like watching animals in a zoo (right down to the tree trunk and tire swing). Placing Mae, Lloyd and Henry on display this way, Graney emphasizes artifice, which he brilliantly underscores with a sly injection of meta-theater late in the play. And of course, having a literal barrier between the actors and the audience also reinforces its theatricality, even as it lessens the play’s emotional impact. But that’s the point. “Mud” isn’t a realist play. It does, however, reflect our dirty, disagreeable reality: that though we may reach for the stars, some of us will remain forever mired in mud.

3 1/2 stars
out of four