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Theatre in Review: Orpheus Descending (Theatre for a New Audience)

Maggie Siff. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

It's only July, I know, but I wonder if the new season will produce another reclamation job as accomplished as Erica Schmidt's staging of this trouble-plagued Tennessee Williams work. Its checkered career stretches across several decades. Originally titled Battle of Angels, it was supposed to mark Williams' Broadway debut (under the aegis of the Theatre Guild, no less), but the Boston tryout was a disaster, featuring an imperious star (Miriam Hopkin), scandalized audiences, and an out-of-control smoke machine. (According to Williams' biographer John Lahr, Audrey Wood, Williams' agent, felt the choice of Boston, represented "a deep, collective death wish.") The production was summarily canceled, and Williams had to wait five more years before breaking through with The Glass Menagerie.

The playwright returned to Battle of Angels in 1957, renaming it Orpheus Descending. He wanted Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani; he got Cliff Robertson and Maureen Stapleton and a three-month run. (Brando and Magnani did the film, known as The Fugitive Kind.) The property was retrieved from obscurity by Peter Hall for a late-1980s revival that featured a (to put it mildly) controversial performance by Vanessa Redgrave. She was electrifying if you could understand what she was saying. But that was a big if.

Clarity is not a problem at Theatre for a New Audience. Schmidt's major insight is to treat the play not as a star vehicle but as a portrait of a small Southern town ruled by deadening Puritanism and brute force. It's a way of life that crushes the weak, sensitive, or eccentric and it looks a lot like parts of America today. If Schmidt's approach sacrifices a certain operatic quality and steamy eroticism, it fully captures the fear of being forced to live at bay in an environment hostile to individual expression.

Into this inhospitable environment, Williams throws together four such outsiders. Lady Torrance, an Italian immigrant, runs a general store while her loathed husband Jabe lies upstairs, dying of cancer. Dressed in black, she is a premature widow, -- or, perhaps, she mourns her father, the owner of a wine garden, savagely murdered by the Klan for serving Blacks. Against her better judgment, Lady takes in Val Xavier, a down-his-luck troubadour, provocatively dressed in a snakeskin jacket, on the run from years of carousing and living off women; his casually seductive manner thrills and appalls the store's female clientele. Eyeballing Val hungrily is Carol Cutrere, a dissipated, bedraggled baby doll whose hell-raising ways have caused her wealthy family to pay her for staying out of town. (It's a deal she often ignores.) Hovering on the sidelines is Vee Talbot, wife of the sheriff, who, horrified by the ugliness she has seen, has retreated into religion, turning her visions into bizarre paintings.

Foreigners, kooks, mystics, and sexual outlaws; none have a chance in a world bent on eradicating them. What happens next unfolds against a background of chain gangs, lynchings, and mob violence. The catty "nice" ladies of the town, their voices dripping with honey and arsenic, are dying to disapprove of Lady and she gives them what they want with her brusque manners and chilly disregard for Jabe's health. (He returns her hatred, with interest.) But Lady really puts herself in harm's way when she takes Val into her bed while insisting on opening a "confectionary" -- really a blatant attempt at reviving her father's torched establishment -- even as Jabe's death looms. (Both Lady and Val have been bought and paid for, she in her loveless marriage, he with the lineup of women who have kept him in liquor and clothes; that they might harbor tenderness for each other is an unacceptable thought among those who hate and/or desire them.) Meanwhile, Carol, a gin-soaked Cassandra, urges Val to flee with her, and Vee, blinded by an apocalyptic revelation of the risen Christ, unconsciously foretells the calamity that will befall Lady and Val. "We live in a world of light and shadow," Vee says, and it's the shadows that dominate here.

Schmidt's production has its stylized aspects, including Amy Rubin's skeletal, faintly haunted-looking set and David Weiner's chiaroscuro lighting, but, by and large, she plays down Williams' most overt gambits, including the treatment of the local ladies as a Greek chorus and the appearances of Uncle Pleasant, a Black conjure man who serves as an all-purpose harbinger of doom. Instead, she focuses on incisive performances and a growing sense of impending ruin as Lady and Val fight back furiously against their fates. Maggie Siff's Lady is a cunning survivor, sweeping up any phony sentiment with the broom of her skepticism yet possessed of a lurking sensuality. Pico Alexander makes Val a fading boy-man, burned out from half a lifetime's worth of hell-raising and frightened that he may no longer matter. With her raccoon eyes of mascara and dishabille wardrobe, Julia McDermott -- unrecognizable from her performance in 2019's Heroes of the Fourth Turning -- makes Carol an oracular truth-teller. Ana Reeder's Vee is positively radiant but with an undercurrent of fear, caused by scarring memories of violence.

Among the smaller roles, James Waterston brings a multitude of unspoken feelings to David, Carol's controlling brother and Lady's ex-lover; Michael Cullen exudes a sense of decay as Jabe; and Molly Kate Babos and Laura Heisler hold court as the town's leading gossips. ("Curiosity is a human instinct," one says, defending her rapaciousness.) Jennifer Moeller's costumes strike just the right note of shabby respectability and Justin Ellington's original music and sound design strike their own baleful notes, including the howls of offstage dogs and the terrible thump of Jabe's cane, demanding Lady's presence in the bedroom. Hang on for the moment when scenery and lighting come together for a transformation that signals a kind of false dawn for Lady and her confectionary.

Orpheus Descending is never going to make it into the top tier of Williams' plays; it is too diffuse, too overloaded with devices and allusions (see the title) to fully work. (Williams felt that if Elia Kazan had directed it in 1957, rather than Harold Clurman, it might have been a success; he may be right about that, but I think we would be talking about a much different play.) Still, it is highly stageworthy; furthermore, a scenario that might have once seemed suffused with paranoia has eerily acquired a certain ripped-from-the-headlines quality. We live in hysterical, often violent times; in Orpheus Descending, Schmidt has found a gripping way of sounding the alarm. -- David Barbour

(18 July 2023)

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