Pillar Studio

The world is festering in Maria Irene Fornes’s The Conduct of Life. Rotten at the core, it’s producing a pus that slowly seeps into the souls of her characters and makes them morally weak and pathetic. Furthermore, Fornes seems to say, there is nothing they can do to prevent it.

In Pillar Studio’s production, this grim vision is incredibly potent. Riveting, actually–full of force and drama, and not at all depressing until it’s over and you have time to stop and think about it. That’s good theater. Pillar Studio seems to have a knack for good theater. Each member has given impressive performances in the past few years, and collectively the troupe brings a lot of intelligence to this production. Although there are some weak moments, The Conduct of Life establishes this as a new company worth checking out.

Set in a present-day Latin American country (though the costumes would indicate otherwise), The Conduct of Life follows the moral decay of Orlando, an ambitious young man who knows instinctively that his “degrading sexual passion” might impede his ability to rise in the ranks of the military. Unsure of his own merits, he decides to achieve his goal of “maximum power” by marrying well. But once Orlando marries a wealthy woman named Nena and begins to rise in the military, his sexual passion grows more perverse and lewd. Unbeknownst to his wife and their housekeeper Olimpia, Orlando keeps the object of his passion, a young orphan named Leticia, imprisoned in the basement, where he regularly beats and rapes her.

Fornes writes a tight script, deftly adding tension with each scene. The military begins torturing political dissidents, and Nena suspects Orlando is involved in the torture. Meanwhile he continues raping Leticia, claiming that these rapes are acts of love. Olimpia and Alejo, Orlando’s military colleague, discover Leticia in the basementt, but no one says anything to Orlando or tries to stop him. Their world turns into an ugly nightmare that they seem powerless to fight.

Director Ellen Beckerman lets the action speak for itself in a manner as straightforward as it is chilling. At times Beckerman’s touch seems too light–some moments remain obscure–but the production is also refreshingly free of preachy overtones, even though the characters reek of moral decay.

What really make this production worth seeing, however, are the tremendous performances by the women in the cast. Tracy Landecker is formidably funny as the crazy lisping housekeeper, Hallie Gordon’s Nena has an iron will and a good heart, and Amy Landecker is an eerily sweet Leticia. Although Fornes’s script belongs to the women, Frank Dominelli as Orlando and Tom Padovan as the silent Alejo hold their own.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mitchell Canoff.