A Red Orchid Theatre has mounted a joyous, goofy production of a Tennessee Williams eccentric rarity, The Mutilated. Oh, it’s also a sad story about the strained relationship between two women—one wealthy and mutilated by disease, the other homeless and selling her body or soul on the street for a drink and a bed. Both desire the warmth of a lover’s body to heal their psychic wounds.
It might be a Tennessee Williams discourse on the life and times of the New Orleans denizens he knew from hanging out in the French Quarter. But there’s much more to The Mutilated. Director Dado has mashed together a cacophony of human drama and holiday spirit. Her director’s note says the text is “elliptical and mysterious, like New Orleans itself.”
The play opens with a motley band of carolers and musicians performing the song that Williams provides in his 1965 script.
I think the strange, the crazed, the queer
Will have their holiday this year
And for a while, a little while,
There will be pity for the wild
A miracle, a miracle!
A sanctuary for the wild.
You may doubt that the tiny Red Orchid space (which seats 75 smashed-together viewers) would hold a band of 12 musicians plus a room at the Silver Dollar Hotel, its bar and switchboard. But the magic of theater takes place, as it often does at Red Orchid and other Chicago storefronts.
The story involves Trinket Dugan (Mierka Girten), whose inheritance means she can afford a regular hotel room as well as a jug of tokay. The secret of her surgical mutilation is known only by Celeste Delacroix Griffin (Jennifer Engstrom), her boozy, bawdy friend, whose rich brother Henry (Doug Vickers) has turned his back on her.
By the end of the play, Trinket and Celeste are reunited on Christmas day after a night of trysts or attempted trysts with sailors (Steve Haggard and Morgan Maher). The two women are enraptured with the possibility of a spiritual aura that Celeste is certain has appeared in Trinket’s room. It’s Christmas, the bells are ringing and Jack in Black appears outside with the musicians.
Lance Baker and Shade Murray fill important roles in bridging scenes of The Mutilated. Baker plays Bernie, the soigné switchboard operator, as well as Jack in Black, the spectral musician. Murray plays Maxie, who leads the band of carolers and frequents the hotel bar. Both are strong performers in key roles. The musicians, in a variety of odd headgear such as animal ears, halos and Christmas caps, appear throughout the play to mark transitions.
Despite the mournful tone of the final lyrics, the play ends on an affirmative note with Maxie and the singers performing, accompanied by Jack in Black. The chorus sings:
A miracle, a miracle,
The tolling of a ghostly bell
Will gather us from where we fell,
And, oh, so lightly will we rise
With so much wonder in our eyes!
But that’s a dream, for dream we must
That were made not of mortal dust.
Jack in Black sings, “Expect me, but not yet, not yet.” The chorus concludes: “A miracle, a miracle! He’s smiling and it means not yet.”
The set, sound design and costuming for The Mutilated all deserve four stars. Grant Sabin’s set design captures the ornate decay of an old French Quarter hotel. Brando Triantafillou’s original music and music direction are supported by Joe Court’s fine sound design. And Karen Kawa’s costumes are delightful and sometimes grotesque. (Bird Girl’s feathers come to mind as costuming for Natalie West.)
Besides his many world-famous plays such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie and The Rose Tattoo, Tennessee Williams wrote dozens of short stories and plays, many of them rarely produced. If you’re interested in learning more about his life and work, John Lahr’s 2014 biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, is an excellent and dramatic overview.
The Mutilated runs 90 minutes with no intermission and continues at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells, through Feb. 28. Performances are Thursday through Sunday. Tickets for $30-35 can be purchased online or by calling 312-943-8722.