Chicago Theatre Review
Loneliness is the Greatest Affliction
The Mutilated – Red Orchid Theatre
It’s Christmas Eve, traditionally a joyous night for most people, but it can also be a very depressing time of the year for others. It’s a night that reminds us of family, or the lack of it; so it depends upon where life has left you on December 24. In Tennessee Williams’ forgotten one-act, Celeste and Trinket, two sad women cut from the same cloth as Blanche du Bois, Amanda Wingfield and his other more famous heroines, fight with each other, as well as with their own personal demons, in an attempt to celebrate Christmas. The streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter resound with revelers, musicians and sailors on shore leave for the holiday as two lonely women struggle to connect and survive.
Tennessee Williams reached the pinnacle of his success during the 1940’s and 50’s, but after several productions that didn’t prove as popular, coupled by a slew of personal problems, the playwright’s work during the 1960’s and 70’s turned especially dark. The expressionistic plays he wrote during this time period never achieved the success of his earlier, more naturalistic and poetic work. This little known one-act, which appeared on a double bill in 1966 with another, “The Gnadiges Fraulein,” was billed under the title, “Slapstick Tragedy.” It closed within a week, marking yet another dismal moment in Williams’ career. However, in the capable hands of Dado, one of Chicago’s finest directors of this kind of drama, it’s a celebration. It’s as if we’re being treated to a newly discovered, brand-new play by the master.
The play concerns an on-again, off-again friendship between two women. Celeste has just been released from jail for shoplifting. Her more affluent brother has found her a possible job at a bakery but Celeste thinks that’s below her. She fancies herself a lusty, busty beauty whose assets have allowed her to live off prostitution and shoplifting for many years. However, her body is no longer as desirable to the potential Johns on the street. More importantly, Celeste has been evicted from the dive resident hotel where she lives and is currently not only broke but homeless. Following a big fight, during which a vulgar, inebriated Celeste shared that her friend Trinket is mutilated (a code for losing a breast to cancer), the two ladies have severed their friendship. Yet, despite their disagreement, they each crave each other’s companionship. Trinket, the more gentile Texas oil baroness, has chosen to live among the degenerates of this fleabag establishment because she’s ashamed by her physical disfigurement and feels she deserves nothing better. But both of these women, living a life of shame and sordidness, share the mutilation of loneliness and find solace in each other.
Dado’s production, as flashy and flamboyant as the continuously roaming band of costumed musicians and singers that wander through the play, makes the intimate confines of Grant Sabin’s skeletal French Quarter set feel almost vast. Lined with garish Christmas lights and tinsel, the director has staged her production with care, finely focusing our attention where it needs to be placed, often times even directing characters to take a seat in the aisles or the audience. It’s as if they’re finding a moment to observe the insanity and isolation of their lives from a new perspective. Karen Kawa has fashioned an appropriate array of period costumes that whisper, distressed elegance; and lighting co-designed by Mike Durst and Claire Chrzan is appropriately atmospheric.
Jennifer Engstrom is captivating as Celeste. She’s grounded yet flighty, crazy but very shrewd. She’s truly, as Williams intended, this production’s focal point and you cannot look away when she’s onstage. But as tough and wily as Ms. Engstrom is, Mierka Girten projects a steady ethereal light as Trinket, a faded yellow rose of Texas who will do anything to keep from wilting away. Sadness permeates the existence between these two ladies, but Dado wisely keeps the story moving from grim reality to flights of fantasy. They’re well supported by an excellent ensemble of minor characters, such as Lance Baker as Bernie, the surly hotel clerk, Morgan Maher and Steve Haggard as Bruno and Slim, two horny sailors looking for some holiday hanky-panky, and a band of assorted musicians and revelers who play and sing Brando Triantafillou’s original Christmas carols.
This production is a wonderful discovery, written over 40 years ago by one of America’s finest master playwrights. Here Tennessee Williams depicts another pair of sadly tragic Southern belles waging a war of wills. Feeling fresh, alive and new in Dado’s creative hands, this dramatic comedy about shame, survival and the need for friendship is an examination of how loneliness is, in this playwright’s eyes, the greatest affliction of the human condition.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 14-February 28 by Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office 312-943-8722 or by going to www.aredorchidtheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com