A rare and important theatre event took place in LA last week.
“Festival Irene,” at Inner-City Arts, spent 10 days of play readings, panels and a mixer or two celebrating the work and legacy of María Irene Fornés, one of America’s foremost modern playwrights.
Her works — which gained an unequalled 9 Obie Awards in her 40-year career — were richly represented. Onstage were Fefu and Her Friends (1977), MUD (1983), The Conduct of Life (1985), Summer in Gossensass (1995), and Letters from Cuba (2000).
Her legacy — from a lifetime nurturing playwrights — was even more abundantly on display. Audiences saw a panoply of plays by marquee authors: Cherrie Moraga’s Giving Up the Ghost; Migdalia Cruz’s FUR; Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas’ Queer Is Not Yet Here; Luis Alfaro’s The Golden State, Part One: DELANO; Eduardo Machado’s The Cook; six short pieces by Lisa Loomer and one by Octavio Solis; Caridad Svich’s Any Place But Here, and Nilo Cruz’s Beauty of the Father.
The evening I was able to attend offered the Loomer and Solis shorts as hors d’oeuvres, and then a full reading of Fornés’ MUD. This stark three-character tragedy won an Obie (though it premiered at LA’s Padua Hills Festival), and shows Fornés at the height of her powers.
In a house that seems made of the mud around it, Mae and Lloyd live alone. She cooks, cleans, irons, and attends a literacy class. He feeds the pig (and has sex with it, though he is impotent with Mae). She keeps trying to get Lloyd, whom her late father brought in as a foundling, to the local clinic for his illness, but he demurs.
Mae brings home a pamphlet, but must ask neighbor Henry to read it. When Henry says grace before their meager supper, something erupts in Mae; she takes Henry as her model and mentor. She also takes him to her bed, feeling love and desire for the first time.
Later, when Henry is disabled by a fall, Mae finds herself taking care of two needy, infantile men. She resolves to leave, packs and goes. Both men howl after her and Lloyd, picking up the shotgun, kills her.
MUD is not fun, though it is often funny. (Fornés has a fine sense of humor.) It isn’t easy to watch. There’s no pastoral romanticizing in this dirt-farm tragedy, and the inevitable outcome doesn’t hurt any less because we foresee it.
But we also get no lamenting (a la Miller), no lectures (a la Brecht). Fornés stays outside the work (though her sensibility saturates it). Using the simplest language — much as the characters use the mud to shape their home — she lets people say what they will and do what they can. Their frankness is often shocking, but just as believable as their moments of obtuseness, their attempts at deceit, or their flashes of hope.
If a playwright doesn’t love the characters, the play isn’t worth watching (or even writing). Fornés’ plays are always worth watching. And I think she loves her characters best by truly respecting them, letting them be whoever they are, not moving them about in a plot or allegory. This way of working opens for us a powerful experience of who they are — and makes us ask , in turn, who we are.
Though it’s “only” a reading, the three actors — the lucent Shannon Lucio, the quietly subtle Darrell Larsen, and the tragic clown Pete Laughlin — do sterling work. Each brings a fully imagined character to the stage, and moves delicately through their arc.
Huge congratulations to the five-year-old Hero Theatre and its founder, Fornés protegee Elisa Bocanegra (who also sang classic romanticos between the short pieces). And thanks to Inner-City Arts and the festival’s sponsors. Fornés’ dedicated life, and her powerful plays, are a river of lifeblood flowing into our time and beyond.
MUD, by María Irene Fornés, directed by Yetta Gottesman.
Presented by Hero Theatre as part of its 10-day “Festival Irene,” at Inner-City Arts, 720 Kohler St., LA 90021.