Just don't expect to be able to follow everything that happens onstage. After all, the script merges six short stories -- "The Coming of Something to Widow Holly," "The Interval," "Florence Domingo and Suzie Patten Entertain," "Man Bring This Up Road," "In Memory of an Aristocrat," and "Oriflamme" -- into a single 90-minute show, with one actress assuming all of the roles. Part of the thrill of Mortal Ladies is watching Marlowe struggle to accomplish this daunting task, with simple costume changes, taut direction, and minimal props as her only tools. She does not bring total coherence to the sprawling piece, but she intrigues us and holds our attention so completely that it doesn't really matter.
From what I could make out, Widow Holly is the proprietor of a dilapidated New Orleans tenement, and she's trying to collect overdue rent from her tenants Suzie Patten and Florence Domingo. Although Holly says that she needs the money to pay for treatment of her aching bones, it becomes clear that her real affliction -- like that of several other Williams women -- is ennui. She has led a very settled life, and her marriage was so devoid of passion that she can't even remember her late husband's first name. (She calls him "Mr. Holly.") The play focuses on her hunger to escape; along the way, we learn about the various guests at her house on Bourbon Street.
Marlowe shifts between characters -- from aggressive gentlemen suitors to prim society matrons -- at breakneck speed. Here, director Stuart Mullins is remarkably inventive. To depict an argument that's taking place behind closed doors, Marlowe performs in silhouette with the help of a shade on wheels (courtesy of set designer Rachana Jadhav) and a footlight (courtesy of lighting designer Phil Hewitt). For a Brit, the actress displays an impressive command of Southern dialects and lends each of her characters a unique cadence. Her attention to detail holds the expansive show together.
The writing is vintage Williams, so much so that if anyone who has even a passing familiarity with his work were to walk in the theater by accident, he would immediately be able to name the author of this prose. In one scene, a prostitute named Isabel befriends an idealistic young writer named (ahem) Tom. Dissatisfied and needy, Isabel wants to be accepted into high society, this despite the fact that she regards it as hypocritical and vulgar. But the modest, level-headed Tom comforts her with words that are among the most representative, if least known, in Williams' oeuvre: "The only true aristocracy is the aristocracy of passionate souls." As spoken by Marlowe, all of the author's words are especially vivid.