Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.
When: through March 13
By ANNE SPISELMAN
You can be forgiven if you never heard of Tenessee Williams’ “The Mutilated,” much less seen it. Premiering in 1966 with “The Gnädiges Fräulein” on a double bill dubbed “Slapstick Tragedy,” it flopped on Broadway, closing after only seven performances. A 2013 off-Broadway revival fared better, but it’s hard to imagine a more oddly charming production than the one directed by Dado at A Red Orchid Theatre.
Set in his beloved New Orleans on Christmas Eve, the play is far from Williams’ best, but it does touch on his familiar themes, among them desire, despair, and loneliness. The city teems with hustlers, hookers, pimps, sailors, and the simply down-and-out got up in Karen Kawa’s tattered costumes, which suggest a burlesque show with holiday accents, such as furry angels’ halos, antler hats, and bows. There’s even a Bird Girl (Natalie West) in full regalia, led around by Maxie (Shade Murray), shedding feathers along the way.
Grant Sabin’s fantastical set design and Mike Durst and Clarie Chrzan’s lighting conjure the busy streets of the French Quarter with bits of wrought iron and other accents, as well as the lobby and a room at the run-down Silver Dollar Hotel, a park bench, and the local bar—quite an accomplishment given the petite stage. Adding to the large ensemble are a trio of musicians punctuating the action with very funny pseudo-Christmas carols that combine the playwright’s words with delightful original music by Brando Triantafillou and are sung by all with gusto and glee.
At the heart of the 90-minute one act is the gradual, painful, funny, sad, melodramatic reconciliation between two women of a certain age who were once together but had a falling out. Except for a penchant for swilling cheap wine, these lost souls are polar opposites.
Celeste Delacroix Griffin (Jennifer Engstrom), who has just gotten out of prison for shoplifting, is an extroverted prostitute with huge appetites and a fearless passion for life, though flashing her ample bosoms doesn’t seem to be drumming up any trade, and she’s flat broke. Her brother Henry (Doug Vickers), who sprung her from the pokey, doesn’t want anything to do with her, not even to invite her to Christmas dinner. Her basic philosophy is summed up when she explains, “as long as you have longings, satisfaction is possible.”
Trinket Dugan (Mierka Girten), who continues to live in the flophouse even though an inherited Texas oil well made her wealthy, is a depressed introvert who rarely goes out. Afraid that no one will want her, she’s scarred emotionally as well as physically by her “mutilation,” the loss of a breast (though mastectomy and cancer are never mentioned).
The rift between them occurred when Celeste basically blackmailed Trinket by threatening to reveal her secret. Now she’s desperate to get back in her former companion’s good graces—not least because she’s homeless—and will do anything to achieve this. She tries to get Trinket to agree to a truce, and when that fails, she scrawls a message about the mutilation on the hallway wall in the hopes that embarrassment will work.
Meanwhile, Trinket decides that this Christmas Eve she’s going to find a man, so she heads out to the bar. After sneaking into her room for some wine, a rest, and a change of clothes, Celeste follows. This leads to vicious arguments and humiliations, especially for Trinket, whose tryst with the brutish sailor Slim (Steve Haggard) is a disaster.
The elaborate battle of wits and wills continues; essentially it’s the kind of dance that goes on between many lovers, only elevated to operatic proportions. There is really no question of who will win, but the fun is watching how well the over-the-top Engstrom, practically a force of nature, and more restrained Girten, the epitome of vulnerability, play off each other.
Celeste treats the ending as a religious miracle, but it’s really a rare triumph of human forgiveness and compassion. “The Mutilated” may not be a great play, but A Red Orchid makes it an evening to savor and remember.