George Orwell once said, "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever," and that pretty much captures the tone of Mouse in a Jar, an unrelenting chronicle of violence and suffering. Orwell was talking about totalitarianism, and the play, with its Polish-immigrant protagonist, Ma, does make a bow in that direction. There's mention of Communism; at one point, Ma asks her leather-clad daughter, "You join Nazi?" The faceless abuser, Him, is both a merciless husband and a metaphor for the terror inflicted by the torturers of any of the world's dictators, from Augusto Pinochet to Saddam Hussein — particularly since he's represented on stage only by sharp light and an ugly sound. But for the most part, the focus is on domestic violence and its fractured and not-always-predictable after-effects. These are the articulable themes, but there are also more obscure meanings expressed in imagery and metaphor: splurts of poetic ranting, the mini-forest of wooden poles ribboned with strips of fabric that represents the acting space, the moment when Ma winds bandages around her own face, completely obscuring her features.
We begin with two girls talking as Ma stirs food in a pan; you can hear the sizzle. Ma appears dazed and mesmerized. We learn that the girls are sisters, and every night their father comes home to rape and torment Ma. They want to persuade her to run away, taking them. Eventually one of the sisters, Zosia, disappears. What happens to her is left vague, but there's a hint that she intervened in the violence one night and, later, talk of a corpse found in a field with its face burned off, facelessness — the immigrant's and the prisoner's — being a recurrent theme. The second daughter, Daga, is bound to her mother by bonds of love, pity and contempt, and she enlists a young man, here called only Boy, in an attempt at rescue. Boy has a sad and confusing story of his own. He recalls a scene in which, as a boy of twelve, he huddled on the bathroom floor while his mother either vomited or bled from a self-induced abortion. (I'm not sure which because, this being a LIDA production, faces are often obscured by scenery and words fly out into the gloom and get lost, so that what you're left with is a generalized impression spiked by little moments of vivid clarity.) The Boy, too, takes up the theme of exile: The bathroom tiles become countries with little black borders as he stares at them. We realize that Ma will not and does not want to leave her abuser, that something in her needs his attentions. Daga's bid to save her mother is abusive in itself, and her manipulations of Boy are cruel — but then, Boy is a manipulator too, with his own cruel impulses. (One of the friends who accompanied me to the theater spent his life in youth corrections; for him, he said, watching the production was like being at work.)
Mouse in a Jar is by Martyna Majok, a young and talented Polish-American playwright, and it has everything to do with the pain of her own background and her search for identity. Some parts are amazingly effective, and a lot of the language is quite wonderful — compressed and evocative in precisely the way poetry should be. But there's also often a sense of a writer reaching too hard for meaning and tragedy. There are muddled stretches of dialogue and too much annoying gabble about things intended to be obliquely significant, like mashed potatoes. Daga's tone is so unremittingly pained and angry that she doesn't quite come to life. The scenes that speak most eloquently reveal Ma not as a symbol or generalization, but as a very specific woman from a very specific place in the world, twisted by suffering, simultaneously loving her daughters and unable to love them, a woman whose utterances often contain an odd, hardened-in-flame humor. Trina Magness gives a haunting and utterly committed performance in the role. Janna Meiring as Zosia and Kelleen Shadow in the longer role of Daga both make a fine, clear impression, and Lorenzo Sariñana's puzzled, honest performance gives us a Boy who's flesh and blood rather than just a concept. Under the direction of Julie Rada, Mouse in a Jar is a brave and worthwhile exploration.