Those fascinated by Tennessee Williams should make it to this. Orpheus Descending is a beautiful mess, rarely performed and almost never with great success. But it’s brimming with the combustible elements we associate with Williams, the menacing conventionality and violence of mid-twentieth century segregated Southern small-town life, placed in opposition to the life force of steamy, musky, adult ardor. We have to admire the mission to give this great literary work its due—in 2-1/2 hours without intermission in a cavernous church in the Village.
Williams is at his lyrical best here, and on the bare knife edge at the end of realism. Basically a stranger comes to town, in this case thirty-year-old Val Xavier, a strange-talking loner with a guitar, wearing a snakeskin jacket. Even doing nothing at all, he’s trouble, setting off ripples of inchoate desire through any local females not fully tied down. There’s the bad girl run out of town, Carol Cutrere, played with a jaunty, off-kilter energy by Beth Bartley, not quite in the same world as the rest. Then, centrally, there’s the Italian (therefore lusty) wife of a dying older man, the shopkeeper Lady Torrance, enlivened with a grounded directness by Irene Glezos, who bravely explores the scarred emotional terrain of her character’s recent and distant past. There’s also a woman who paints from visions, a mystical “conjure man”, an unforgettable memory of a Dionysian wine garden burned to the ground along with its owner, Lady’s father, for the crime of serving liquor to blacks.
Making due with simple lighting effects, using aisles between pews to bring characters on and off, Director Austin Pendleton clearly loves setting actors free within the work. The play functions almost like opera, riding on the emotional force of arias with not overmuch concern for the literal plausibility of the plot points and entrances and exits. Driving it all is pure passion, or frankly, sexual desire.
And here, this production seems amiss. If ever there was a case for playing with an awareness of a super-objective throughout a play, this is it. Williams’ plot per se is not propulsive. The revelations of secrets are almost random, dreamlike. The key is the ardor. The ardor and danger mix and mix and heighten and heighten until something has to happen. That’s it. So if those elements aren’t felt almost throughout, there’s just a lot of strange, inexplicable, even melodramatic behavior. One almost wishes for an orchestra to keep that sense of dangerous longing ever present.
Todd d’Amour is fascinating and truthful as Val in his own way. But the effortless suggestiveness, the native sensuality of Val, doesn’t seem like enough here to cause all the concern among the menfolk over his mere presence. D’Amour embodies Val’s “strange talking” feature with a committed, Paul Harvey-like, clipped cadence that he uses to spit out his anger and defenses to Lady in a period style. I wonder if all that gets in the way of his sheer animal force and gaze and attraction to the skin of new women. We believe the response to him, but not so much the cause.
We do get the small-minded town, peopled here with near Fellini-esque delight in the range of human beings, short and tall, big and small. The racial oppression of the time comes out in casual, mean-spirited comments, with unsettling n-bombs and no actual visible black people. The danger, eh, not so much from this odd crew. When Sheriff Talbot gives the veiled threat that he hates violence, it doesn’t feel very threatening. Here we believe D’Amour’s chilled response, but not so much the cause.