Early in Ashlin Halfnight's Mud Blossom, Camille Brown repeatedly slings a knife into a wall. She casually tosses the knife so precisely that the audience instantly knows there are potentially violent, even dangerous, events in store for these characters. In Emergency Theater Project's world premiere production, the playwright has crafted a taut, intricately packed world of family history and deceit for his well-defined characters to inhabit. As Camille plays with the blade, the audience is intimately aware that something in this quiet little house is going to rupture before the play ends.
Single mother June is doing her best to raise Camille, her only daughter, after the death of her husband. June and Camille live in the rural South in what has been the family home for generations, along with June's mother, Gongi. June is protective of her 15-year-old daughter, sometimes to the point of physically abusing her, while Gongi often acts as mediator.
Camille, meanwhile, is ready to run away to Quebec, or start messing around with boys, or anything that her mother doesn't want her to do. She also wants to know why her father is dead and why her mother hasn't been the same since. A harrowing chain of events forces these three generations of women to sort out their messy lives together.
The major action comes out in only a few sudden bursts, so most of the stage time is spent living with these characters. Halfnight's script also spends a good deal of time distinguishing the characters' voices from each other and developing their separate relationships. Each woman is instantly defined and has a tangible, overarching goal, even if there is no obvious conflict in front of her.
Halfnight also makes excellent use of atmosphere. For instance, Camille keeps digging up baby shoes in the flowerbed outside the house, and the radio warns of a serial rapist who uses a recording of a baby crying to lure victims out of the house. These two pieces of valuable sensory information play perfectly into the story's themes of buried truth and lost children.
Kate Pines's direction is impeccable, blending seamlessly with the script. Her take on the material doesn't force the play into places it shouldn't go—it stays true to the text and keeps the action and the characters moving. Regardless of what the women are talking about, there is always some small physical task for them to accomplish. There are several scenes in which the characters fold laundry without ever referring to that task in the dialogue. Likewise, June silently does the morning crossword puzzle with her coffee. These are both small but effective examples of adding activity and authenticity to the characters' lives.
Jesse Poleshuck's scenic design represents both the interior of the family's living room and the exterior of the yard very well. The structure is highly detailed in places like the kitchen but vague in others, such as the porch. This is particularly effective, because you get the impression that the whole stage picture was once a pretty painting that now has spots flaking off.
Above all other design elements, though, Bridget O'Connor's soundscape is the most powerful and driving. The Decemberists' music before the play begins is rockabilly enough to suggest the tone and location of the action but is just a touch off-kilter, warning us that everything in this world is going to be a little skewed. Music from Gongi's old clock radio lends effective atmosphere to the scene transitions and pays off in an intense hallucinatory sequence toward the end.
Corrine Edgerly, Jennifer McCabe, and Liz Myers are all superb actresses. Edgerly's Gongi is compellingly sweet, deceitful, and funny when necessary, but she also moves into the play's darker territory without hesitation. Playing an abusive parent is easy if you turn him or her into caricature, but McCabe's frustration as June is so accurate and familiar that it convinces us that everyone has the potential for violence under harsh circumstances.
Myers gives Camille a wonderful, genuine way of running over the other characters' lines that lets you know she's not really listening to what they say. She has two very difficult tasks in her role—delivering a lot of monologues to unseen characters and playing a teenaged character who has to grow up very quickly. She succeeds at both, and her performance drives the show.
With Mud Blossom, Halfnight has put together a textbook example of a great American play, one where all the elements of performance and design have allowed the Emergency Theater Project to present a stunning production.