No matter how bright the day is outside, when you enter the theater to witness Thinking Cap Theatre’s unnerving production of the Obie Award-winning “Mud,” you’re walking straight into darkness.
Written by Cuban-born Maria Irene Fornes, a Pulitzer Prize nominee and author of more than 40 plays, “Mud” is a grim study in ignorance, poverty and desperation, with characters that could come off as rural stereotypes if Thinking Cap’s talented cast weren’t so effective at breathing a terrible humanity into them. The production is gloomy, profane and sexually disturbing — Thinking Cap is not admitting anyone under 18 without an adult — but it’s undeniably compelling. You can’t look away even though you will wish you could.
Amid curtains of grubby plastic sheeting stands a threadbare set (effectively designed by Alyiece Moretto) that reflects the bleak nature of rural hardship: an old wood-burning stove, a ladder acting as shelving for pots and pans, a few tires, a shopping cart loaded with an ax and a gun, which loom silent but large throughout the production. As the play opens, a bitter rain falls, and Mae (Gretchen Porro) stands at an ironing board, pressing pants. This is what Mae does to eke out a living. But she’s going to school and learning to read, a fragment of hope in what can only be viewed as a hopeless life. Recently seen in Thinking Cap’s productions of “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney” and “The Realistic Joneses,” Porro is a powerhouse, a magnetic force who slowly earns the audience’s empathy while never betraying a moment of weakness.
Mae shares her home, such as it is, with Lloyd (Christian Vandepas), the unpleasant, maddening anchor that ties Mae to her situation. There’s something off about Lloyd, though putting a name to it is difficult (and probably politically incorrect). His relationship to Mae is menacing and ambiguous. Are they related? Are they lovers? Maybe, though the word “love” rings hollow in this place. He’s illiterate, like Mae, and physically sick, convincingly so. Last seen in Ground Up & Rising’s “Our Lady of 121st Street,” Vandepas leaves an indelible impression, one that makes you shudder and cringe. If you’re seated in the front row, you’ll think about moving back lest you catch whatever it is he’s got.
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As the two of them spar and snarl at each other, into their world steps Henry (Alex Alvarez), whose appearance and ability to read place him higher on the class ladder, though his suit’s dingy hue indicates he’s one rung up at best. Henry comes at Mae’s request to read Lloyd’s prescription (it’s too difficult for her to comprehend). But then Henry stays, to Lloyd’s horror, and suddenly Mae has one more tether.
Directed by Nicole Stodard, the company’s producing artistic director, “Mud” ebbs and flows like the rain, each scene ending with a flash and slow, dreamlike choreography emphasized by the fine work of lighting designer Eric Nelson and sound editor Carey Hart. As these characters circle each other warily, “Mud” repels and challenges us, dragging us down to places we’d rather not be and demanding we pay attention. It’s not pretty, this production, but you won’t soon forget it.
If you go
What: ‘Mud’ by Maria Irene Fornes
Where: Thinking Cap Theatre at the Vanguard, 1501 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale
When: Through Nov. 6; Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m.; Sunday 5 p.m.
Tickets: $35; www.thinkingcaptheatre.com or 954-610-7263