Tennessee Williams was the poet laureate of the American theater during the 1940s and ’50s, but the next two decades of his life took a downward spiral, with failed productions of his new plays, increasing abuse of alcohol and drugs, and, in 1963, the death of his partner, Frank Merlo.
It is not essential to know all this when watching “The Mutilated,” a 1966 play I had never even heard of, let alone seen until I arrived at A Red Orchid Theatre’s altogether spectacular production of the work. But it certainly underscores the themes of this play: The quest for salvation, whether in the form of physical love, friendship or the more ritualistic aspects of religion, and the fierce instinct for survival that exists in even the most down-and-out of souls.
And this production is something of an act of salvation all its own. Watching it you cannot help but think that Williams is looking down from wherever he might be these days and exclaiming: “Yes, that’s exactly how I imagined it — and maybe even better. They got it.”
When: Through March 13
Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells
Tickets: $30- $35
Run time: 95 minutes, with no intermission
It would be difficult to think of a more perfect director (the irrepressible Dado), or two more fearless, larger-than-life actresses (Jennifer Engstrom and Mierka Girten), or an ensemble (plus musicians), with such a feel for the broken down spirits of this world, or a design team more perfectly attuned to the phantasmagoric aspect of Williams’ imagination, than those gathered for this Chicago production. And the best thing about it is that for all the over-the-top pageantry and acting out here, Williams’ heart, soul, poetry and black humor never gets lost.We are in Williams’ favorite place, New Orleans, and it is Christmas eve. The streets are filled with revelers — costumed misfits, drunk and in search of something, or anything. Celeste Delacroix Griffin (Engstrom), estranged from her family, has just been released from prison after serving time for shoplifting. Her wealthy brother has cut her off. And she has lost her allure as a hooker. So she heads to the only place left: The fleabag Silver Dollar Hotel where her longtime companion, Trinket Dugan (Girten) lives, despite the fact that she is a Texas oil heiress with plenty of money.
“Companion” is not quite the word here, for Celeste has found a way to manipulate Trinket by holding on to the woman’s most crushing secret — her “mutilation” (a mastectomy, although that word, or the word cancer, is never uttered). But on this Christmas eve, Trinket is determined to be reborn — even if it takes cold, hard cash to seduce a young sailor who will make her feel wanted and beautiful again. And Celeste just wants a place to rest.
Both Engstom and Girten possess fabulous theater faces, and an ability to throw themselves into the most extreme situations without ever losing vulnerability and crazy stylishness. And they know precisely how to suggest the hunger for life in the face of devastation that is the sign they will not just survive, but maybe even prevail.
The ensemble is filled with “stars” in cameo turns and includes Doug Vickers, Shade Murray, Natalie West, Morgan Maher and Dominique Worsley, as well as the angelic-voiced Ciera Dawn and Jennifer Glasse. And throughout, three actor-musicians — charismatic Lauren Vogel (violin), Roy Gonzalez (guitar), Mario Hernandez (bass) — add magic by way of composer-music director Brando Triantafillou’s beautiful scoring.
Finally, for pure decadence, New Orleans-style, it would be hard to beat Grant Sabin’s elaborate set, the fantastical lighting of Mike Durst and Claire Chrzan, and Karen Kawa’s costumes.
They all do Mr. Williams proud.