We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Has Woolly Mammoth officially hit middle age? Charles L. Mee’s Big Love is a demolition derby of a play—harangues, manifestos, and war chants (not to mention murder, nudity, and airborne circular-saw blades) smashing together into a symposium on love that seems perfect for Woolly’s usual balls-to-the-walls dynamic.

But in this production, director Howard Shalwitz takes an unexpectedly low-voltage approach to this story of 50 women on the run from arranged marriage. Woolly’s Big Love still packs fun; but Shalwitz’s relaxed mounting lets Mee’s truly free associations curdle into position papers. You leave thinking, Love is a many-splendored thing, and could we all just shut up about it, already?

Mee’s work (especially Big Love) has become a big hit with a lot of forward-thinking theater companies around the country. His scripts are bruising affairs that also reinvent the austere Greek dialogic tradition to tap into a thick stream of collective id. I saw True Love (another play in Mee’s loose Love trilogy) last year in what looked like a New York auto-repair shop, and it was transcendent: rope-swingers, pie facials, a live chicken, and an in-house band somehow binding into a disturbing and tender catalog of how humans get off, sexually and otherwise. As psychiatrists might say, important work was getting done.

Big Love has its free-for-all built right into the premise, borrowed from Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Maidens: 50 Greek sisters, betrothed to their cousins by a contract between patriarchs, skip out before the mass wedding and flee on a ship to Italy. Three of the sisters—Lydia (Kate Eastwood Norris), Thyona (Naomi Jacobson), and Olympia (Lisa Biggs)—land at an estate where the eldest son, Piero (Leo Erickson), is more than a little nervous about sheltering them. “One doesn’t always go around doing what’s right,” he sputters. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.” He relents only when the sisters threaten to hang themselves on his property in protest.

Clearly, Lydia, Thyona, and Olympia are serious about staying single—for now, anyway. Thyona sounds like Andrea Dworkin with rabies: “Boy babies should be flushed down the toilet at birth,” she says, with a reasoned sorrow suggesting that she’s considered every angle of this final solution. The beauty-products-obsessed Olympia, on the other hand, thinks submissiveness to men is “better than any drug.” Lydia is somewhere in between, angry that her will has been so rudely ignored but still hopeful “there could be a world…[where] there is not a men’s history and a separate women’s history but a human history where we are all together and support one another.” It’s a typical Mee irony that she delivers these lines under the thwack-thwack of approaching helicopters, bearing the grooms like conquering aliens.

The guys aren’t all that bad, really. Take sensitive Constantine (the wonderful Mitchell Hebert), who argues that life and even time itself is rape, “tomorrow taking today by force.” “What is it you women want?” he says. “You want to be strung up with hoods and gags and blindfolds, stretched out on a board with weights on your chest? You want me to sew your legs to the bed and pour gasoline on you and light you on fire—is that what I have to do to keep you?” (Of course, he’s engaged to Thyona.)

Later, Constantine makes a shockingly cogent case for domestic abuse as the gift men give to women to teach them about civilization’s underlying violence. Thyona, though, has already written the textbook. “This game isn’t over until someone’s lying on the ground with the flesh pulled off their bones,” she says, shaking. Not surprisingly, Big Love eventually descends into grand guignol.

But before it gets there, Mee’s carnival of a script gives you freaks, thrills, sharp turns, and awful moments of the rawest disclosure. Lydia and her sweetly gabby fiance, Nikos (Eric Sutton), are the uneasy center around which all this talk swirls, careening between lyrical and cynical as it explores the dream/nightmare that is marriage. “For me…” seems Mee’s favorite way of beginning a line; he wants to achieve a counterpoint of voices, and the more violently they disagree, the better his map of love’s possibilities.

A number of Woolly’s performances rise to the challenge—particularly June Hansen’s as the Italy-smitten English expat Eleanor and as Bella, the matriarch who describes her 13 sons as she counts the tomatoes she’s just gathered (smashing them as she recalls the boys she doesn’t care for). It’s almost worth going just to hear the way Bruce Nelson’s Guiliano, Piero’s queeny nephew, gushes the line “This…is…Italy!” as if introducing a fabulous new designer drug. The evening peaks when both brides and grooms bang out their frustrations in choreographed expressionistic dances—slamming themselves silly into the walls and floor, lifting legs like peeing dogs, and all the while shouting out dialogue like demented cheerleaders. And Jacobson’s Thyona and Hebert’s Constantine—a feral Holly Hunter warring with G. Gordon Liddy—overpower everyone.

And that imbalance eventually topples this Big Love. Shalwitz outlines Thyona and Constantine in thick black. You come to regard them as the voices of the play, derailing the rest of its extended conversation. Biggs’ meek and childish Olympia can’t stand up to her bullying sister (although when Thyona has lines such as “You’re the kind of person who ends up in a ravine somewhere with your underpants over your head,” Olympia has her work cut out for her). But a lot of very poignant and funny declamations—Eleanor suddenly launching into advice for the brides on sexual positions, for instance—get virtually swallowed because Shalwitz doesn’t accent them enough.

The director’s staging choices are equally muted. Mee meant the mass wedding scene to be mayhem—in the script he suggests not only a cake fight but bringing all 50 couples on stage for vomiting, strip-teases, skin on fire, hurled bowling balls, and a hammer and anvil, all leading up to a bacchanal of bloodshed. Shalwitz sticks with his small cast and rushes through the scene without relish or camp value, wasting it. The cast’s chronic throwing of wedding presents offstage quickly becomes gestural rather than shattering and dangerous. (Would somebody please aim at the back wall?) Woolly also muddles some concluding absurdist wordplay, making Bella’s final simpering speech about the virtues of love seem like the play’s last word on the subject.

Blandness rules the production values, too: Set designer James

Kronzer’s main idea—a door that keeps opening onto the estate’s never-ending party—wears thin after three or four uses. Jay A. Herzog’s pretty lighting scheme of watery pastels and sepia tones actually undercuts what should be the edgy, what’s-next mood. Only Elena Zlotescu’s costumes—crazy hats, mismatched formal wear, Lydia’s hemoglobin-red headdress—suggest that this production isn’t already too much under control.

Big Love isn’t nearly as rich as True Love. But it does give you the same sense that Mee is swimming in the undertow of life, amid the to-and-fro of a thousand impulses that make us such exasperating and sporadically lovable creatures. It’s a prime chance to do true theater. Unfortunately, the one company in town you’d pick to do it justice goes only a couple inches below its surface. You can feel the waves, but you want to play in the surf.CP