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‘The Mutilated’ at A Red Orchid: Two lonely souls touched by Tennessee Williams’ grace

Submitted by on Feb 6, 2016 – 1:01 pm
Celeste (Jennifer Engstrom, right) tries to wheedle a drink from Trinket (Mierka Girten). (Michael Brosilow)Review: “The Mutilated” by Tennessee Williams, at A Red Orchid Theatre extended through March 13. ★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson

Life, Tennessee Williams’ plays insist again and again, is a painful passage. Bitter, sweet, paradoxical, farcical. Never mind that other business about sound and fury and nothingness. Williams views the world through a lens of dark existential comedy, and it is on display in all its sad glory in A Red Orchid Theatre’s trenchant take on “The Mutilated.”

Testy friends at peace, Celeste (Jennifer Engstrom, left) and Trinket (Mierka Girten). (Michael Brosilow)Written in 1965, “The Mutilated” comes like an unfamiliar coda to the oft-encountered string of Williams’ early plays stretching from “The Glass Menagerie” (1944) to “The Night of the Iguana” (1961). But it also feels like a more robust and more public antecedent to another of Williams’ portraits of life in lower New Orleans, on misery’s precipice, “Vieux Carré” (1977). What places “The Mutilated” specifically in the arc of that genealogy is the playwright’s distinctive lyricism – that and his characteristic compassion.

Trinket Dugan, somewhere in early middle-age, leads a quiet existence in her room at a third-rate hotel. There, she swills cheap wine that she replenishes from a gallon jug and harbors a terrible, shameful secret: her mutilation. She has had a breast removed. Only one person in the world knows Trinket’s awful secret – her pal Celeste, a devout alcoholic who gets through life one day at a time by tapping her friends or shoplifting or, when real need arises, leasing herself to any guy who might be looking for a good time.

It is Christmas Eve and Celeste has just been sprung from the pokey by her brother, who has arranged a real job for her. He also demands that she change her name because he has children and he can no longer abide the infamy she brings upon the family. But Celeste knows where her meal ticket lies: It’s on the other side of the door to Trinket’s room. Theirs is a singular friendship, at once indispensable and testy to the point of warlike. Trinket actually has money; Celeste has spirit. And they are both very fragile souls.

Celeste (Jennifer Engstrom), just sprung from jail, hangs out in the hotel lobby. (Michael Brosilow)Mierka Girten (Trinket) and Jennifer Engstrom (Celeste) are an infectious comedy team, Girten playing it straight to Engstrom’s riotous excess. Celeste is lost to the world, beyond humiliation – and yet dauntless. Her furry (not necessarily fur) coat is badly ripped, she’s hungry, dying for a drink. It is Celeste, speaking from the foggy center of oblivion, who in a throw-away line offers up the play’s core theme: “We are all mutilated.”

Engstrom’s lowdown loser has nothing left to prop her up, except her illusions, and those indeed seem to be working. Then, of course, there’s good old Trinket, generous and mournful, who doubtless once more will indulge Celeste in the wine of human kindness.

Yet it appears that Girten’s pouting, lonely, abandoned Trinket has turned off that spigot. In fact, she has resolved to swallow the shame of her mutilation and do something she has avoided for quite a while: She’s going to find male companionship, someone who will appreciate her good qualities (as Celeste obviously doesn’t) as well as her womanly charms. So off she goes into the night, to a bar. What befalls there sends the play — and the two mutually needful women — reeling toward a state of grace.

Trinket’s sorry adventure also brings me to the delayed observation that while “The Mutilated” could be imagined as a two-hander, it is not. In fact, it involves a fairly large cast of neighborhood characters – a vibrant, earthy collection infused with energy and wit by director Dado.

Switchboard operator Bernie (Lance Baker) mediates between the warring friends. (Michael Brosilow)The vital community ensemble possesses an authentic integrity, and it is reinforced on this Christmas Eve when the company sings (at several points and quite well) an original anthem by Brando Triantafillou on the theme of miracle. That aura of theatrical unity is further enhanced by Grant Sabin’s concise yet detailed and evocative set, Mike Durst’s lighting and the creative and marvelously expressive costumes by Karen Kawa.

Most important among the supporting figures is the hotel’s switchboard operator, Bernie (Lance Baker in a deliciously droll performance that borders on the surreal). Bernie is the man in the middle between the closeted Trinket and the invading Celeste. In a very funny schtick, the newly freed, starving Celeste hovers over Bernie as he consumes a chocolate bar, imploring him with rising urgency to share even just one bite. In winter, she ruefully notes, the wrapper on a chocolate bar peels away clean, leaving not even a residue to lick.

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