Written by Keith Huff
Directed by Carlo Lorenzo Garcia
At Mary Arrchie Theatre (at Angel Island)
At the center of Keith Huff’s Mud People, now in its Midwest premiere at Mary Arrchie Theatre’s Angel Island space, is a stranger (Dereck Garner) – an angel who has fallen from the sky and who has the power to grant wishes without saying a word. In fact, even when he is not granting wishes, he never says a word, so the story of the angel and his miracles is rather made up by the cast of other characters from rural Clayborne Rising. Imaginary or not, there is a big need for a miraculous angel in this little town located somewhere just south of the twilight zone, some time ago. On the whole, the story is an uplifting tale of the redemptive power of hope and forgiveness that is told with a generous dose of well-worn stereotypical bumpkin humor.
Humor is the thing that carries Mud People, which creates a giant obstacle for Garner as the silent focal character who is onstage for virtually the entire production. It is an obstacle that neither the handsome actor, nor director Carlo Lorenzo Garcia is fully able to get past. If the angel character worked a bit better, the touching bit would be more poignant, so a more creative treatment is desperately needed and the lack of it in this production nearly ruins the potentially entertaining work. Fortunately, there are some fine actors among the cast who take the ample humor and run with it. Among the principles, Mary Jo Bolduc is a standout as highway cafe cook, waitress and dishwasher Barb Zesto. Barb is a virtual prisoner and concubine to her abusive father Mitchley (Richard Cotovsky), who is also the father of Barb’s 13-year-old daughter Tooley (Michele Gorman). Cotovsky thunders as the incestuous tyrant and Gorman is positively convincing as the adolescent. And there are a couple of fine supporting performances as well. Laura Sturm owns the house as Agatha Hackworth, the town’s most busy-bodied gossip and Daniel Behrendt is perfectly natural as Agatha’s goofy brother, the reporter wannabe Buzzy.
Despite the show’s problems, I cannot imagine anyone leaving the theatre saying that they truly disliked it – there are too many funny parts and too much fine acting. If you insist on thinking deeply about the piece, you will find inconsistencies and outright holes that will likely lead you to indifference. If you can look past those flaws and just want to be entertained for a while, you will probably like this show, even if you can’t quite explain why. I sort of fall into the latter category, but I will try. Here is what I liked: fast pace, some wonderful comedic timing, William Anderson’s detailed set, and the comfortable, homey atmosphere at Angel Island. I would like to have seen the angel presented as a truly imaginary being through the use of mutli-media effects. You might be able to envision a yet more engaging treatment for the show and I am confident that should you try to do so, you will be well entertained during your stay in Clayborne Rising. Mud People is not for everyone, but worthwhile for many.
At Angel Island, 735 W. Sheridan, Chicago, IL, 773-871-0442, tickets $18-$22, Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 7:00 pm, running time is 1 hour, 50 minutes with one intermission, through July 12, 2009 (no performance July 4th)