Mae, stumbling over the words at first, but increasingly confident, reads aloud about starfish, which cannot see but can sense both light and dark, and hermit crabs, which sometimes are forced out of the “homes” they carry on their backs.
Both are apt metaphors in Maria Irene Fornes’ 1983 play “Mud,” currently being given an atmospheric and powerful production by the Theater for the New South.
Cuban-American playwright Fornes, much more widely known in the theatre community than to the general public, is uninterested in linear storytelling. “Mud,” subtitled “A Play in 17 Scenes,” is experienced more as if the viewer is flashing in and out of the three characters’ bleak lives.
Mae and Lloyd are living together in squalor in an unnamed place, which appears to be a farm, but from many references to a school, clinic and pharmacy, is close to a town of some kind. Lloyd is suffering acutely from something that causes both constant pain and impotence, but refuses to go to the clinic, so Mae goes alone, and returns not just with a pamphlet she cannot read (“It’s advanced and I am only intermediate,” she says), but with Henry, who reads better than she does but without much comprehension. Mae, infatuated with what she perceives as his light into a higher life, invites him to move in, kicking Lloyd out onto a blanket on the floor.
Fornes, now 82, has always been fascinated by the societal traps women that women face. Unblinkingly feminist, in “Mud” she shows us a woman struggling to better herself, only to be drawn back into the slime by the two men who need and use her. Subtlety is not the point here: Violent, animalistic, anti-intellectual Lloyd is also strong and a survivor; pseudo-sophisticated Henry seems to promise hope and “grace,” only to deliver dishonesty and disgust.
But the play is enhanced by the deftness of this production. Audiences look down into what appears to be a dank pit, in which the characters are enclosed. Eerie original music in between scenes is by the extraordinary Tim Hinck, and occasional noise from the actual streets outside only adds to the ambient disconnect … where are these people? The lighting, by necessity very simple, is starkly appropriate.
Director Blake Harris has allowed the material to speak for itself, and encouraged performances from his three actors that provide detail without veering into cartoon. Jeff Atkins as Henry enters oozing oily confidence, and his devolution into sluglike smarminess after his “accident” is both repellent and compelling. As Mae, Whitney Turner shows us a woman who sees her life only too clearly. We care about Mae, root for her and are touched by her, even as we know she won’t succeed in emerging from the mud. Matt Johnson’s visceral performance as Lloyd is perhaps the strongest of the three. We can smell this man as he leaps about his cage like an ape.
“Mud” is not the production for those who want only a light evening of diversion at the theatre, but it’s yet another example of how Chattanooga’s theatre scene is evolving and diversifying. “Mud” was first presented at Southern California’s Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, which has fostered the talent of some of the West Coast’s most innovative voices. Bravo to the Theater for the New South for this challenging choice.
$10 • 8 p.m. • May 17-20
Collective Clothing Warehouse
4015 Tennessee Ave.