nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 14, 2007
Ashlin Halfnight is a wonderful writer. Having now had the pleasure of seeing three of his plays (starting with the stunning God's Waiting Room back in 2005), I feel like I'm just beginning to understand how versatile a dramatist he is. The acute empathy he has for his characters, his vast range of topics and interests, and his abundance of ideas (both plotwise and thematically) mark him as a rising playwright to be reckoned with. I also love the chameleon-like quality of his work: no two of his plays are alike. When he is operating at full power, audiences are treated to an edifying visceral and intellectual workout. Even when he goes astray, as he does from time to time in his new drama, Mud Blossom, there is much to marvel at.
Rebellious teen Camille lives in a remote farmhouse in the rural South. She writes poems about death, knows how to throw a knife pretty well, and longs to escape to exotic Quebec. She's had enough of her repressive, stifling home life, and wants out. Her strict mother, June, is still reeling from the suicide of her husband almost a year ago. Camille's housebound grandmother, Gongi, is a source of comfort and support, but doesn't have the backbone to provide either steadily. When Camille starts digging up stray baby shoes in the yard, June starts getting nervous: a local serial rapist allegedly lures his victims out of the house with the pre-recorded sounds of a crying baby.
Little does June know she has more important things to worry about, like Camille's growing sexual curiosity. Mud Blossom also wouldn't be a proper Southern gothic tale without some skeletons in the closet, and this clan has their share. It's just a matter of time before they all see the light of day.
Halfnight has written three rich characters here. These women come out of the gate three-dimensional, and only become more multi-faceted as the play progresses. The way he compassionately presents their complicated essence, warts and all, free of any judgment, is really nice.
Mud Blossom is also funny. Whether he's illustrating Camille's budding sexual prowess ("he's more of a man who likes to pleasure a woman with his mouth," she speculates about a co-worker at her after-school job), Gongi's quick wit (in response to a Quebec travel brochure that highlights hunting, she replies, "Hunting French people?"), or June's misguided teasing (she ribs Camille about her Canadian fixation by speaking intentionally broken French), Halfnight deploys a dry sense of humor tailor-made for these women.
In terms of story and plotting, however, Mud Blossom loses its way a bit, especially in its second half. Camille is the play's ostensible protagonist, but in Act II both Gongi and June threaten to steal focus, throwing the certainty of whose story this is into doubt. Halfnight also introduces a slew of subplots and character quirks—which include the aforementioned serial rapist, the baby shoes, and Camille's knife-throwing—that either don't quite satisfyingly cohere or just aren't followed through at all. This plethora of story ideas diffuses some of Mud Blossom's effectiveness, but Halfnight is able to turn it into a virtue. Such a glut of material would derail most other plays, but here it looks more like an embarrassment of riches. Further proof of Halfnight's talent and skill.
Emergency Theater Project has mounted a top-notch production. Director Kate Pines and set designer Jesse Poleshuck do a wonderful job communicating the metaphorical prison each character resides in with the big, rambling farmhouse that dominates the stage. Also, Pines's staging deftly emphasizes the increasing conflict among the three women. And, Mud Blossom is blessed with an excellent cast. As Gongi, Corinne Edgerly brings a suitable rascally playfulness to her role. Jennifer McCabe is vibrantly strong as the tough and long-suffering June. And, Liz Myers takes ownership of the play with her freewheeling and deeply-nuanced performance as Camille.
Mud Blossom shows a gifted playwright in transition. Thankfully, it's the kind of transition that, despite the many benefits of the work that's currently on display, points towards even better things to come. Halfnight has the tools and the ability, and pretty much knows how to use them. As far as I'm concerned, the sky's the limit for him.