“What of the Night?,” Maria Irene Fornes’ raw, blistering tale of love, loss, betrayal, sacrifice, isolation, violence, poverty, the currency of sex, and the power of language, is not for the meek.

‘WHAT OF THE NIGHT?’
Highly recommended
When: Through Feb. 12
Where: Cor Theatre and Stage Left Theater at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Tickets: $18-$30
Info: www.cortheatre.org or www.stagelefttheatre.com
Run time: 2 hours and 50 minutes, with one intermission

The Cuban-American playwright (now 86, and a victim of Alzheimer’s for many years), was a major figure on the Off Off Broadway scene from the 1960s to the early 1990s. During that time she wrote more than 40 plays, many of them experimental in form, of which only a handful are produced on any regular basis. Watching the brave, immensely ambitious and profoundly disturbing revival of “What of the Night?” — a rarely seen 1989 work now receiving a riveting co-production by Cor Theatre and Stage Left Theatre — you understand just how difficult it can be to perform this weave of four interconnected one-act plays titled “Nadine,” “Springtime,” “Lust” and “Hunger.”

Not only does its nearly three-hour chain of storytelling demand actors willing to bare their souls, conjure an intense sense of intimacy, and suggest deep wells of pain. But they also must be able to play with words that are at once poetic and oddly offbeat, and strung together in the manner of a masterful writer for whom English will always be marked by signs that it is a second language. (A simple riff on the word “impeccable” might just be one of the play’s most beguiling moments.) Fornes’ play, boldly directed and skillfully directed by Carlos Murillo, is one of those pieces that leave you wondering how its cast of 11 actors can emotionally gear up to repeat their performances for weeks on end.

Casey Morris plays Charlie and Dionne Addai is Birdie in María Irene Fornés' play, "What of the Night?," a co-production of Cor Theater and Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit. (Photo: Ian McLaren)

Casey Morris plays Charlie and Dionne Addai is Birdie in María Irene Fornés’ play, “What of the Night?,” a co-production of Cor Theater and Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit. (Photo: Ian McLaren)

Precisely where the play unfolds is never fully specified, although it begins in the late 1930s, in the down-and-out part of a city hit by the Depression where men huddle around a steel drum, warming themselves in the cold. Nadine (Tosha Fowler), is the mother figure involved with the brutal, angry Pete (Miguel Nunez), a latter-day Fagin who preys on her pitiful son, Charlie (Casey Morris) — sending him out to steal and more often than not rewarding him with a brutal beating. Pete also demands sex from Nadine, who gives in only to get the money she needs to keep her daughters alive, particularly one in need of medicine. Also living with Nadine is Birdie (the wonderfully enigmatic Dionne Addai), who will marry Charlie but soon assert her independence and head off on her own.

“Springtime” unfolds in the late 1950s, by which time one of Nadine’s daughters, Rainbow (Kathryn Acosta), has found a seemingly blissful lesbian relationship with the frail and beautiful Greta (the easily sensual Allyce Torres is unquestionably an actress to watch). But the selfish, sexually predatory Ray (Nelson Rodriguez), who trades money for sex, destroys their relationship, leaving Rainbow distraught and altered.

The third play, “Lust,” leaps into the late 1960s and ’70s (although time is a hazy element throughout the play), and we watch as Ray bargains his way to success and sexual satisfaction with his perverted boss, Joseph (Stephen Loch), while his well-to-do, touchingly repressed wife, Helena (Kate Black-Spence is perfection), remains in the dark about his true desires.

Finally, “Hunger” brings us full circle in a strangely haunting way, with a scene of desolation in which older versions of Charlie and Ray reappear (their power dynamic somewhat reversed), and the self-possessed but nervous Birdie arrives to minister to a homeless colony.

Along the way, Eleanor Kahn’s richly environmental set design, Eric Vigo’s eerie lighting, and Brenda Winstead’s character-defining costumes suggest rather than define the worlds of this play — a work that repeatedly asks: What will people do in order to survive? Why is love so often the casualty when money is involved? And what is the true source of human cruelty?

Kathryn Acosta, Nelson Rodriguez, Stephen Loch, Dionne Addai and Kate Black-Spence in María Irene Fornés' play, "What of the Night?," running through Feb.12 at Theater Wit. (Photo: Ian McLaren)

Kathryn Acosta, Nelson Rodriguez, Stephen Loch, Dionne Addai and Kate Black-Spence in María Irene Fornés’ play, “What of the Night?,” running through Feb.12 at Theater Wit. (Photo: Ian McLaren)