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Cuban-American Maria Irene Fornes, a poet, painter and a playwright for more than half a century, has said that, in her plays, she seeks “innocence, tenderness, a sense of humor and a special kind of joy.” In “Mud,” a Fornes work from 1983 now in revival at Torn Space Theater, those laudable qualities are in short supply.

Fornes, a prolific, absurdist, avant-garde feminist dramatist whose plays – the musical “Promenade,” the innovative “Fefu and Her Friends,” a parade of one-acts – have received a mix of critical bouquets and brickbats over the years, more times than not directs her own work. She’s elderly now, so those times are less frequent. In 1988, she came to Buffalo to mount her lackluster “Abingdon Square” at the late Studio Arena Theatre. For “Mud,” Torn Space Theater founder Dan Shanahan leads and Melissa Meola Shanahan assists in directing Bonnie Jean Taylor, Patrick Moltane and Willie Judson.

“Mud” is far from innocent and tender. Maddening, nasty, violently dark and disturbing would be more apt descriptions. Mae and Lloyd – dysfunctional, poverty-stricken, illiterate, barely-eking-out-an-existence housemates – have a new crisis. Mae wants to learn to read, to join the world. She’s ready to bolt the house where she irons all day, carefully creasing perfect, geometric folds, in sharp contrast to the mess around her. Lloyd, limbs nearly useless, is sex-obsessed and unkempt. “You stink,” notes Mae.

Mae is attending night school. She meets Henry, who can read. Mae is impressed and invites Henry into her house and, ultimately, her bed. Lloyd is relegated to the floor. This is a menage a trois for the books. A bad ending for all begins to rapidly take shape.

In 17 scenes, frames that often become startling, blinding white group portraits, the metaphorical, allegorical, Beckett-like “Mud” continues. Characters evolve: Lloyd perks up, Henry develops an unexplained paralysis. And Mae, sweet, hopeful Mae, sends out a chill to the audience when she whispers: “Kill him, Lloyd.” And it gets worse, horribly, for everyone. No more night school.

Throughout “Mud,” Mae, Lloyd and Henry are anchored to what scenographer Kristina Siegel calls “semitransparent white silk organza fabric.” They move about but go nowhere. Their environment, their culture, stops them. Trapped. Siegel says that they “drag part of their space with them.” It’s obvious but effectively creative.

Brian Milbrand's projected graphics also are integral, as are Patty Rihn’s lighting designs and Justin Rowland’s periodic, ominous sounds.

Actress Taylor is superb. Fornes always has written wonderful roles for women, roles designed “to help keep us from standing in line,” she has said. Taylor’s Mae vaguely senses her power to make a difference and ends terribly, but she often is brilliant. Patrick Moltane is faultless and disgusting as Lloyd. The tall, steely-eyed, stoical Judson, long an acting icon at the Robeson and Ujima theaters, adds considerable menace to Henry in this nightmarish 90-minute piece.

“Mud” also is a play about the use of language – repetitive, perverse, stultifying – and the Shanahan directing team paces this well, keenly developing needed sexual tension.

“Mud,” love it or hate it, read into it what you wish, is nevertheless what live theater is all about. The play instructs you, changes you, repulses you, moves you, oddly attracts you.

And that is what Torn Space Theater does best.

Theater Review

4 stars

What: “Mud”

Where: Torn Space Theater, 612 Fillmore Ave., Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle

When: Through April 13

Tickets: $15-$25

Info: 812-5733 or www.tornspacetheater.com"> www.tornspacetheater.com