Sunday, May 7, 2017

In 'Mother****er With a Hat,' love is a form of substance abuse

If you're a person not blessed with a firm intuitive gift about people, theater has a special attraction. A play presents you with all you need to know about the people embodied in front of you for an hour or two.

The playwright may play games with your understanding, of course, and Stephen Adly Guirgis' "Mother****er With the  Hat" hardly lets up in that department. But how often we fall short of helpful understanding about people in real life! At least I do. We tend to be amazed such knowledge often comes to us too late.

The characters in this play — the two conflicted couples at its center — are blocked in their mutual and self-understanding by the obstacles of drug dependency. They erect sloppy yet deliberate structures for hiding the destructive behavior and suspicious attitudes that their addictive behavior has forced upon them.

Theatre on the Square has a torrential main-stage production of "Mother****er With the Hat" up through next weekend under the inspired direction of Gari L. Williams. You'll feel the assault from the start as the one-act play focuses on the relationship between childhood sweethearts Jackie and Veronica, both troubled by addiction, compounded in Jackie's case by violent tendencies and a prison record. Things aren't much better between Ralph and Victoria, despite the "recovering" veneer that just barely gives their relationship stability.

The play's title ought to tip anyone off that the language through which these couples' conflicts are expressed is characteristically obscene. The old knock against "bad language" in literature and life is that it is gratuitous and suggests an impoverished vocabulary. The verbal cupboard is certainly not bare among Guirgis' characters. The insults are baroque, astonishing, and often quite funny. And there's nothing gratuitous about how these people talk; it's essential. F-bombs are the glue holding together their papier-mache constructions of personal integrity and battered self-esteem.

Eric Reiberg and Carrie Schlatter strike sparks consistently as Jackie and Veronica. Though Ralph, played with a mix of bluntness and suavity by Ben Rose, is amply duplicitous as Jackie's sponsor in recovery, Jackie is the play's focus of the lying norm that substance abuse entails. Affairs of the heart are inevitably caught up in the same deceptions, and Reiberg and Schlatter make this home truth eventually quite moving: Jackie and Veronica started the fire, and they can't help blowing hopefully on the embers.

As Victoria, Chelsea Anderson is the more knowing and cynical of the two women, her writhing body language expressing the desperation of perennial unhappiness. She's no fool, but in this environment, that doesn't count for much. Husband Ralph's mastery of the language of recovery serves him well in deceiving Jackie, but he pays a near-fatal price for it.

The frightening magnitude of Reiberg's portrayal makes clear that trust is a burning issue for Jackie, and the lack of it spoils the attempt of all four to get control over their lives. He peers painfully at the game of life like a street kid through a knothole in the fence. Jackie's cousin Julio, brightly assertive and insightful in the performance of Ian Cruz, has lifted himself up from the mean streets with an agenda of self-betterment.

It's Julio who shines an insistent light on Jackie's tale of a clandestine affair with his AA counselor, forcing the defensive ex-con to try holding on to a distinction between what his story says happened and what actually happened. Jackie wants to set aside what actually happened (he triggered the liaison) because it interferes with the narrative he needs to establish. "Mother****er With the Hat" got me to realize that what you want people to believe about you may be truly part of your authenticity.

Lies can become so embedded in us that we remain innocent of any intention to deceive. Jackie leads these characters in proclaiming "This is who I am" no matter what they do or say. It reminded me of a (non-substance-abusing) co-worker of mine in the 1980s at a newspaper elsewhere when the AIDS crisis was heating up. When it seemed likely HIV-AIDS might become the mother of all STDs, with heterosexual and homosexual transmission alike, she said in casual conversation that the new plague was sufficient discouragement from her ever having an extramarital affair.

Being unblessed with the kind of intuition I mention above, I interpreted that as a sensible married woman's response to the horror of AIDS instead of a possible revelation that adultery was something she often thought about. A couple of years later, she had an affair with the paper's editor that resulted in his dismissal.

Yet I'm tempted to think she really meant what she said about fidelity. She wanted me to believe it, and she also thought it represented who she really was: a faithful wife. The characters in "Mother****er With a Hat" are similarly convinced they are being true to themselves, even as (except for Julio) they're busy scattering falsehoods and bad faith all around them and suffering the consequences.