KPBS AIRDATE: July 9, 1997
Sam Shepard meets Ethan Frome in “Mud” by Irene Fornes. It’s one of those small, searing, claustrophobic plays that fits so well into the Fritz Theatre. “Mud” features a lethal erotic triangle, a trio of characters trapped by their own poverty, ignorance, desires and destructiveness. Its gritty setting and ghastly ending are reminiscent of Shepard’s “Curse of the Starving Class,” Edith Wharton’s 1911 novella, “Ethan Frome,” and Lynn Seifert’s “Coyote Ugly,” starkly mounted at the Fritz two years ago.
Plays by Fornes are often grim and grisly. Her language, dense, poetic and precise, highlights the everyday differences between text and subtext, between love and the fear and violence that always threaten its fragile existence.
The play opens on a grimy, ramshackle cabin, probably the best set ever at the Fritz, designed by local actor Ron Lang. Only the annoying sound design intrudes on the scene.
Lloyd is in a heap, sniveling and trembling. Mae is upstage pressing clothes, symbolically trying to iron out her life, to rise above the muck. She is going to school to learn reading and arithmetic. Lloyd, sick, filthy and simple-minded, wallows with the pigs. The circle of co-dependence widens when Henry, a controlled and deliberate would-be philosopher, comes to stay. Love, jealousy and desperation motivate theft and degradation, anger and ultimately, violence. Power shifts, tables turn. The final shocking scene leaves Lloyd, once again, sobbing on the floor.
Like Fornes’ other works, this 1983 piece is disturbing and unnerving drama, finely wrought. And director Tim West has mined its veins of taut emotion and terrible, unspoken truths. He has teased superlative performances from his sturdy cast. West has consistently done solid work as an actor; his directing is focused, precise, and extremely impressive.
At the apex of the triangle is Betty Matthews as Mae, simple but subtly sexual, a determined woman whose tattered dress hangs loosely on her slender frame, but who is straining against the tight confines of her life. Matthews bears the marks of her year of study at New York’s Circle in the Square. Her performance is intense, credible, seemingly effortless and outstanding.
Michael Severance, fresh from the wildly antic “Food Chain” by Nicky Silver, where he played a self-loving, self-loathing super-hunk, is a pitiful but menacing Lloyd, a man of animal instincts enhanced by inexpressible fear and longing. Severance shows his amazing physical agility here, balancing on barrels and spools, effectively using his body to convey his character’s lost and regained virility. And as the somewhat spiritual, somewhat literate, somewhat dignified and somewhat brutal Henry, John Steed clearly shows that he is continuing to master his craft, anchoring his performances and burrowing deep inside a role.
Despite the harsh lyricism of the text, director West knows that, in this inarticulate world, the body speaks volumes. He has mounted a riveting piece of theater.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.