The most astonishing images that emerge from Holly Hughes' densely written solo performance rudely confront a mother's sexuality. In the parking lot of the H&H Bakery in Pinconning, Mich., she beats a porcupine to death with an axe handle and offers the bloody pulp to her daughter as a science project. Inviting her daughter to share the bathtub, she uses her own body to demonstrate the facts of life: "She said she liked to smell herself. It made her a better gardener. There's no word for a woman who has that kind of power over tomatoes." The daughter -- horrified, jealous, aroused -- watches her parents make love on her mother's deathbed. Hughes is at heart a poet, and like the best of them she uses language not to dress up the messy emotions of life but to strip them till they're raw and shivering. Her writing is an unlikely mating of Ntozake Shange's feminist humor-with-anger and Sam Shepard's dirt-plain purity; in a little more than an hour, World Without End travels from Saginaw to the Lower East Side, nailing in the sparsest terms the holy sound of zippers ("Jesus loves that gettin'-naked sound") and the cozy aroma of a Denny's ("things in general frying"). And like a number of her writer-performer contemporaries (David Cale, Chris Durang, Karen Finely), Hughes struggles to find theatrical form for her passionate, impolite content. She mixes narrative, song, and tirade so unpredictably that you almost dread to hear what she'll say next. Yet afterwards it's stunning and satisfying to realize you've been in the hands of a master writer who learned well at her mother's knee, "Nobody's scared enough."

7 Days, April 19, 1989