Big Nose Theater

at A Stage of One's Own

A compendium of the work of Maria Irene Fornes would reveal that perhaps her strongest trait is a singular belief in the audience's intelligence. She talks up; she fearlessly peels away layer after layer; and she never shocks just for the sake of shock.

Fornes's 1983 script Mud is so tense it's nearly unbearable--especially in Big Nose Theater's claustrophobic space on North Avenue. In this play Fornes makes the usual demands on her audience, then asks for a certain courage and patience, too.

Mud involves many Fornes signatures: imperfect characters who struggle against the odds to learn and then to instruct; an illumination for even the basest creatures of something worthy and true; a vigorous love of life, even if that life is itself some small, accidental miracle of survival.

But Mud breaks a bit with Fornes's usual faith. Like Paul Bowles's writing, it suggests that our chances are limited, that opportunities are rare and exacting, and that timing is everything. Mud is depressing as hell; redemption, it seems to say, is not everything it's cracked up to be.

The story involves Mae, a young backwoods woman who is urgently trying to overcome her circumstances. As the play opens, she is ironing men's pants and telling Lloyd, the dumb, puppylike man who shares her home, about school. She's learning to read and to do arithmetic. When she talks about her education, it's still so mysterious and holy to her that she can treat a simple numerical equation like a Eucharist.

Lloyd, who was brought to the house by Mae's late father many years before so that she might have a playmate, knows all this schooling is dangerous: if Mae learns too much, she'll leave him. He tells her he doesn't need any of it; he tells her he already knows about numbers. He also tells her that he managed an erection today, held it as long as he wanted, then finally ejaculated against the wall. He points to the stain as evidence.

Mae is disgusted. Lloyd is a man so literally sick that he smells putrid. She's convinced he's rotting from the inside out. "You're a pig," she tells him. "You're going to die in the mud." Mae wants him to go to the clinic, but Lloyd won't go unless he can take with him a large, menacing ax. They're at a stalemate.

Enter Henry, the catalyst for Fornes's nightmarish script and, curiously, her weakest creation in Mud. Although we know virtually nothing about Henry, we understand that his value exists in contrast to Lloyd. Henry's no great shakes--he can't read all that well himself, and he's full of pretenses--but he doesn't smell, he has money, and he's virile. Mae gives him Lloyd's half of the bed, relegating the revolting but defenseless Lloyd to the floor.

For Lloyd, Henry's presence is more sickening than any disease. And Henry knows this. He knows that however pastoral Mae might want their menage to be, it's dangerous. He knows he can't go after Lloyd directly--Mae would jump to protect him, that's clear--so he chooses a more insidious form of attack. "What is he to you?" he demands of Mae. She shrugs and crosses her arms over her chest. "Lloyd and I took care of each other, but I don't know what we are," Mae answers. "We're like animals that grow up together and mate." The relationship between Mae and Lloyd--crude, visceral, instinctive--is both sweet and horrific; it's the greatest mystery of all. That it's inexplicable makes it almost more real: after all, who the hell can explain love?

After Henry moves in, Lloyd is forced to suppress his rage and slowly, desperately begins to clean up his act. He goes to the clinic; he tries, against all his own best interests, to be supportive of Mae's quest for literacy; and finally he exposes Henry--through a less-than-honorable deed of his own --to be a small and petty man.

A lesser writer might have stopped there, wrapped it all up as some lesson in appearances or appreciation, in some romantic ideas about the endurance of love. But Fornes shakes everything up again by having Henry fall off some wet rocks, a tumble that leaves him disabled.

Surely it is Fornes's catastrophic invention that shifts the direction of the story so dramatically at this point; but in Big Nose's production, it's Scott Stuart as Lloyd who makes the earth move. "Can he do this?" Lloyd demands of Mae (Lauren Love), leaping about the furniture as if he were flying, running and falling and flying again. The Big Nose space has room for no more than a couple of dozen people at once, and Stuart seemed to be soaring above our heads. He was exhilarating, simply stupendous. When Mae explains to Lloyd that what has happened doesn't mean the end of their association with Henry but a longer, more dependent relationship to one another, Stuart's Lloyd drops, in body and spirit. Then he throws up, spitting out hope as if it were poison.

As Mud goes on, the periphery of Mae's world shrinks and shrinks until Henry and all of his new-world visions and even Lloyd threaten to swallow her up. By the end Mae has no options left, none at all. She's as good as dead. What happens when love is as much a trap as a bond? What happens when one's hopes are greater than one's world? How do we measure love? As extreme as the characters are in Mud, they resonate. Fornes knows we understand.

Big Nose's production is difficult to watch, not only because of the tiny space but also because the director, L.M. Attea, has chosen to focus on the characters--it's as if the show were a film shot entirely in close-up. Every emotion pricks at the audience's skin. Every scar, every acne rash, every sticky clump of hair is underscored in this deceptively harmless, quotidian setting. Even the blackouts--excruciatingly long and tense--serve to make the audience hold on to disturbing, strobelike images.

Stuart and Love are joined by George Czarnecki as Henry in a fine, controlled performance. That Love manages to give Mae both depth and credibility is a minor miracle: in lesser hands, her character might have seemed just a dreamy victim. Love gives her a sense of purpose and a streak of stubbornness, a kind of bitter selfishness, that simply are not in the script, however powerful it is.

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