New City Theater revisits the poetic descent into the muck of the gripping María Irene Fornés play “Mud.”

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The first thing you notice in the New City Theater production of the María Irene Fornés play “Mud” is a wire-mesh box, the size of a small room.

During the show you will mostly see through this to watch the goings-on in a dilapidated rural shack. It is rather like viewing animals in a cage, an ingenious metaphor created by scenic designer Nina Moser with director John Kazanjian.

The setting matches the symbolic intentions of Fornés, an experimental dramatist who in oblique and literal ways pulls her hapless characters down into the bestial muck and up into the light of civilization.

Theater review

‘Mud’

By Maria Irene Fornés. Through June 13, New City Theater, 1406 18th Ave., Seattle; $15 (newcitytheater.org or 800-838-3006).

A raw, bone-wry feminist parable and unsentimental vision of dirt-poverty, written in 1983, the hourlong work conveys an elemental story. Mae (Mary Ewald) and Lloyd (Tim Gouran) have lived in squalor together in this hovel for much of their lives, as surrogate siblings and “mates.” Their coexistence drastically alters when another man (Henry, played by George Catalano) joins their meager household. And when Mae learns to read.

Barely furnished, grimy and plastered with old newspapers, this hut is the habitat of archetypes and the terrain of myth.

Lloyd is the feral, impotent child-man and farmhand — illiterate, nearly subhuman in his ignorance. Henry is a few notches up the evolutionary scale. He can read and write and wears shabbily respectable clothes, but his perspective is nearly as narrow as the single row of audience seating for the show.

Only Ewald’s Mae comprehends her limitations, and, as Simone de Beauvoir put it, yearns to “emerge, herself, into the light of transcendence.” A drudge hovering over an ironing board to earn her bread, a weary mother more than lover to the helpless Lloyd, she aspires to stop living “like a dog.” To that end she’s learning to read, and to think beyond the moment. But striving also makes her a marked female caught between two dependent males.

The seesawing power dynamics in this setup spark tensions, violence and, not surprisingly, tragedy.

But it is the way Fornés blends scabrous intimacy with Beckettian surrealism and spare, loaded speech that gives the hourlong “Mud” its offbeat rhythms and, if you latch onto it, a ruminative power.

New City first presented “Mud” (with different actors) in 1990. Fornés is a long-term associate artist at New City, and director Kazanjian is wired into her aesthetic. He doesn’t soften “Mud’s” shocks nor let the glints of black humor go to waste.

Each of the 17 short, symbolic scenes in his visually arresting staging freezes into an eerie tableau. The chiaroscuro effects in Lindsay Smith’s excellent lighting design selectively obscure and illuminate individual objects and faces. You lean in, and wonder.

Fully lit, the stage picture has a sepia tone, like antique photographs. Maybe we are in the Great Depression. We are surely in a timeless version of the Old Testament.

One can’t help empathize with Ewald’s Mae. Haggard and oppressed, or tough and assertive, beaming as she poignantly recites from a children’s science textbook or in awe over a gift of lipstick, she is the ray of hope in a bleak existence.

Catalano captures Henry’s gentle courtliness, mottled with self-centered pomposity. After a savage role reversal, he stunningly descends into the bestial mud with Gouran’s Lloyd.

Lloyd is the most off-putting role, and Gouran goes whole hog with the primitive sexuality and jealous rage — which is about as subtle as a sledgehammer attack at times.

More vulnerability would deepen the portrait. And Gouran has some of his best moments when Lloyd is brooding in calm before a furious storm. Is humanity so close to rabid animal instinct? Given the right circumstances, Fornés’ answer is yes.

Note: This article was corrected on May 29, 2015. An earlier version incorrectly stated that playwright María Irene Fornés was deceased.