Everyone loves a good rags-to-riches story. The idea of a downtrodden person overcoming the odds to rise to the heights of success has been a narrative archetype since classical times. Tales about Aladdin and Cinderella continue to delight children, while adults look to the biographies of the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Eminem, and J.K. Rowling for inspiration and hope. Here in the U.S., we take the notion of the self-made man or woman very seriously. The ability to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps is fundamental to the nation's sense of self-respect. Forget Oscar Wilde's line about lying in the gutter and looking up at the stars —here in America we reach out and touch them.
Or so we like to think. If María Irene Fornés' brutal 1983 play, Mud, illustrates anything, it's how little we understand the concept of self-improvement, and how getting by in the world is, for many of us, less about rags to riches than about survival of the fittest. The Cutting Ball's claustrophobic revival of Fornés' drama about a young woman whose dimly defined dreams of leading a better life end in chaos struggles with its challenging mixture of social realism and poetic abstraction. Nevertheless, it succeeds in delivering the themes and emotion with voluble force.
Set in a rundown shack in some unspecified rural dustbowl, Mud revolves around the relationships among three bottom-of-the-totem-pole characters: Mae, an ambitious young woman who irons shirts for a living and aims to better herself by going to school to learn basic reading and arithmetic skills; Lloyd, her illiterate housemate and erstwhile lover, who spends his days grappling with poor health and tending the household pig; and Henry, an older neighbor whose rudimentary reading abilities make a deep impression upon Mae. When Mae asks Henry to decipher a technically challenging medical pamphlet that might shed light on Lloyd's condition, she finds herself completely overawed by her neighbor's intellect. An invitation to stay for dinner leads to an invitation to stay for good. At Mae's request, Henry takes Lloyd's place in her bed and asserts himself as the alpha male. The new domestic order is soon reversed: While Lloyd fully recovers from his sickness, an accident turns Henry into a semi-vegetable. Finding herself no longer able to stand her home life, Mae decides to flee. But the ever-dependent Lloyd has other plans for her future.
Mud runs a little more than an hour; it's one of the darkest hours I've ever spent in the theater, because the characters are so vigorously unpleasant to one another. At one level, we empathize with the female protagonist's struggle to pursue her dreams of self-improvement in a male-dominated culture. Yet Mae isn't remotely sympathetic. In some ways, she's like the embittered spinster Maureen Folan in Martin McDonagh's 1996 play The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a woman whose sense of domestic entrapment, like Mae's, leads her to do dastardly things in pursuit of freedom. Balanced against Mae's desire to pull herself out of the mud is her compulsion to rub other people's faces in it. She treats Lloyd as though he's a retard. She calls him a moron, mocks his sexual impotence, and answers questions on his behalf. When Henry arrives on the scene, she has no qualms about kicking the invalid Lloyd out of bed and making him sleep on the floor. Mae handles Henry in a similar way after his accident, when he stops being someone she can look up to. She leaves the newly recovered Lloyd to nurse the house's latest cripple. The sweet-faced Marilet Martinez' perfunctory, unsmiling delivery emphasizes the disconnect between Mae's passion for betterment and apparent lack of compassion for those around her.
The male characters fare little better on the warm-and-cuddly front. Before he's even gotten to know Mae and Lloyd, Henry (a heavy-limbed, empty-eyed Garth Petal) puts them down. His self-important diatribe about the negative effects of drinking condemns Lloyd as an alcoholic even though Mae says Lloyd can't afford to buy booze. "If Lloyd had money, he would drink. He'd be a drunk," Henry pompously concludes. Meanwhile, another speech prophesying a future where consumer resources will be so plentiful that people won't have to waste time "caring for things: washing them, mending them, repairing them" belittles Mae's livelihood at the ironing board. And Lloyd's renewed health merely makes him capable of following through on the violent impulses that had previously bubbled away powerlessly inside his physically depleted body. Alan Kaiser's startling switch from looking like a prison camp detainee at the start of the play to more closely resembling a particularly virile and threatening prison officer by the end underscores his character's no-holds-barred will to survive.
In a play whose funniest moment is an argument revolving around the propriety of carrying an ax to a doctor's appointment, it's not surprising that we feel an uncomfortable relationship with Mud. Director Paige Rogers capitalizes on Fornés' combination of deliberately earthbound language and hyperreal denouement with a suitably stylized mise-en-scène. The cast members deliver their lines with pedantic definition and broad physicality, stepping out of character between scenes to assume temporarily naturalistic postures. Although this approach creates some stultifyingly inert moments that seem mechanical and overrehearsed, it astutely estranges us from the action, thus increasing our awareness of the darkness surrounding the characters.
Just like the shirts that hang limply around the edges of Liliana Duque's Dickensian tenementlike set and the shell-stealing hermit crab described in Mae's reader, we ultimately come to see Fornés' characters as empty husks. The play concludes in a gutterlike gloom from which the stars couldn't be further removed. No matter how much the characters try to scramble up out of the mud with their half-hearted stabs at self-realization, they end up wallowing in it to the end.