Pea…..Marc Damon Johnson
The Signature Theater opens its ninth season with two one-acts, “Mud” and “Drowning,” by Maria Irene Fornes, the company’s current playwright-in-residence and an eight-time Obie Award winner. Under David Esbjornson’s direction, the plays have been given stellar productions that bode well for Fornes’ upcoming new work at the Signature, “Enter the Night” and a world premiere as yet untitled.
Although Fornes has chosen infinitely more intriguing titles for her two one-acts, they could well be called “Mind” and “Heart,” respectively. First performed in 1983, “Mud” is an exploration of the mind of Mae (Deirdre O’Connell), an uneducated woman in Middle America 1930s. In a quest for knowledge, she finds herself in the company of two men who contemplate little more than their own erections and ejaculations. Fornes has made it clear in various writings that “Mud” is not a feminist play, but while Mae pursues the intellectual, however feebly, Lloyd (Paul Lazar) and Henry (John Seitz) appear overcome by the physical and deteriorate as she pulls away from them, one after the other.
Esbjornson has given “Mud” a more realistic interpretation than theatergoers acquainted with the play might expect. He’s placed the work closer to the barren landscape of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” than the absurdist pig pen of Fornes-directed productions of “Mud.” O’Connell’s and Lazar’s performances are always just a whiff beyond the pale of ordinary sanity.
When the stolid character of Henry enters their closed incestuous world in the second of 17 scenes, Seitz’s much more naturalistic approach seems slightly out of sync, but gradually, lending his portrayal an arc linking the virile to the decrepit, he recalls the expressionistic work of the great German silent-film star Emil Jannings.
The two one-acts are performed sans intermission under Esbjornson’s direction , and with the immeasurable help of set designer Christine Jones, costumer Teresa Snider-Stein and lighting designer Scott Zielinski, the director stages a real coup de theatre as the living room of Mae and Lloyd’s home splits apart to make way for the two comically grotesque and rotund lead male characters of “Drowning.”
In this more surreal second play, which dates from 1986, Roe (Philip Goodwin) shows Pea (Marc Damon Johnson) his first newspaper, and the latter promptly falls in love with a female figure he sees therein. Sometimes Fornes’ plays read as though they were written with crayon, but onstage they cry out vividly from an open wound. Johnson personifies that pain when his love is necessarily unrequited, and we are left to wonder when the drowning need of a man for a woman in this play turns into the male-on-female violence that concludes “Mud.”