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    Mud and Drowning

    A search for the soul (continued)

    Continued | Back to part 1

    Audiences that identify satisfying theater too narrowly with great performances may be disappointed with Fornes' work, because her characters are something less than fully imagined, individuated people. Though they are capable of affecting poetry, their speeches make little pretense at resembling the way real people speak. One senses in "Mud" and "Drowning" that Fornes is grasping for something deeper, almost Jungian, in these characters. It is as if she were trying to reinvent the myths of the ancient Greeks in a 20th-century context, to show the human drama writ large, beyond the scope of believable individual portraits.

    Company: Signature Theatre Co..
    Written by: Maria Irene Fornes.
    Directed by: David Esbjornson.
    Cast: Deirdre O'Connell, Paul Lazar, Marc Damon Johnson, Philip Goodwin, Jed Diamond.

    Related links: Official site
    Deirdre O'Connell's Mae in "Mud" is a study in self-development reflected in the cadences of speech. She moves from a Spartan staccato in her early exchanges with the brute Lloyd to a rippling crescendo when exploring her inner thoughts with the more thoughtful Henry. "And sometimes I feel hollow and base. And I feel like I don't have a mind. But when I talk to you, I do. I feel I have a mind. Why is that?" The beauty of O'Connell's characterization is the way she embodies Fornes' belief that only love enables people to fully realize their humanity.

    Paul Lazar's dance background serves him well as Lloyd, whose wretchedness he captures evocatively in the poses of a pained animal, uncomfortable in its own skin, curled up beneath a table or crumpled at an angle in a chair, like a dying dog. John Seitz rounds out the trio as a middle-aged Henry whose finer sensibility is just an accident away from his own beastly decrepitude.

    Mud and Drowning

    While director David Esbjornson's staging is devoid of flourishes, the characters' gently-nuanced gestures deftly illuminate Fornes' preoccupation with innocence and the sensuality of discovery of one's world. Mae's uncertain attempt to position her first lipstick in her fingers is echoed later by the childlike Pea's tentative reaching out for a newspaper he has seen for the first time. Marc Damon Johnson brings a tender naivete on the verge of self-awakening to Pea, who will not recover from rejection by a girl he discovered in a newspaper photo.

    There are hints in the sensuality of gesture in this production of a more penetrating critique Fornes is offering up about human beings' capacity for self-delusion. The wisdom of setting "Mud," for instance, in a backwater 1930s milieu allows Fornes to shadow her characters' expectations of a more civilized future with our own recognition of how little we have advanced. Henry's prophecy that "our time will not be wasted and we will choose how to spend it" and Mae's resolve to "die in a hospital, in clean sheets, with clean feet and injections" evoke a shiver at how modernity and technical innovation have not been able to quell our most basic needs and fears.

    If "Mud" ultimately presents a bleak picture of human capacity for compassion, Fornes is more generous in "Drowning" where Pea's companion, Roe, played by Philip Goodwin, quietly pronounces, "I don't want any harm to come to him because he's good" and "What a terrible thing to see a young man like you destroyed like this, suffering like this."

    The Signature theater must be applauded for achieving such a seamless collaboration of talents as is evident here to create the overall production design. That the dismantled debris of the rustic mantlepiece and water-stained livingroom walls of "Mud" (by set designer Christine Jones) are left onstage in ruins amid the underwater ballet of "Drowning" suggests that humanity may not have much time left for self-examination. Sound designer John Kilgore's faint but pervasive hum of water bubbling, as if we are in an aquarium, is unsettling: we suspect the deluge is nigh.

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    OCTOBER 1, 1999

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