Orpheus Descending Review. Tennessee Williams peculiar Southern Gothic nightmare

Lady Torrance and Valentine Xavier, two would-be innocents who feel corrupted and brutalized by circumstance, meet on his thirtieth birthday, after he’s spent his youth as a drifter and a sexual hustler. Wearing his snakeskin jacket and carrying his guitar (which he calls his “life companion”), Val has wandered into a small Southern town full of gossips and violent bigots, entering the dry goods store run by Lady, a middle-aged Italian-American with a tragic past and an unhappy marriage with a dying brute. Val asks Lady for a job. She asks him for a reference. He produces a letter from the owner of an auto repair shop, who fired him after three months because, even though he was honest and a real hard worker, he was also “…a peculiar talker and that is the reason I got to let him go.” 

That is more or less my reaction to Theatre for a New Audience’s revival of “Orpheus Descending,” Tennessee Williams’ rarely-produced 1957 play – hard-working, but just too peculiar.

Much of the problem is inherent to the script. “Orpheus Descending” has some lovely lyrical passages, and some vivid, compassionate portraits among the large cast of characters: These include Vee (here portrayed by Ana Reeder), the art-loving wife of the abusive town sheriff, and Carol Cutrere (Julie McDermott) as the once idealistic reformer turned drunken floozy who’s been run out of town. There is even something of a social conscience — showing how the white people who had shown kindness to the Black people of the town were viciously punished. But, despite its allusion to Greek tragedy, the play is largely a dated Southern Gothic nightmare, descending into over-the-top ugliness, rife with stock characters and worse: There’s a speechless “Negro Conjure Man” named Uncle Pleasant.

The passion and vulnerability of the two central characters might be enough to carry us through the weirdness, witness Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani’s performances in “The Fugitive Kind,” the 1960 film adaptation of the play, with Williams co-writing the screenplay.

But director Erica Schmidt has cast two good actors as Val and Lady who don’t feel right for their roles. Pico Alexander has Val’s physical beauty but not a smoldering sense of sexual danger (nor the consummate musicianship that the stage play seems to call for.) As Lady, Maggie Siff fares a bit better, but her performance as a repressed then briefly liberated woman  is less subtle or interesting than Wendy Rhodes, the detached, self-aware ironic sophisticate she portrays in “Billions.”

As if to emphasize the play’s peculiarity, Amy Rubin’s set makes the claustrophobia a bit too literal, squeezing the dry goods store into a narrow space in the center of the stage, with wide dark expanse on either side that look less like a metaphor for the darkness of existence than the backstage of a TV studio. If that’s not odd enough, at one point, the side area features a singing clown.

Orpheus Descending
Polonsky Shakespeare Center through August 6, 2023
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including an intermission
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Erica Schmidt
Amy Rubin, Scenic Designer
Jennifer Moeller, Costume Designer
David Weiner, Lighting Designer
Justin Ellington, Sound Designer/Composer
Cookie Jordan, Hair & Wig Designer
Andrew Wade, Voice Director
John Lahr, Production Dramaturg
Lorenzo Pisoni, Physical Movement Coordinator
Justin Cox, Properties Supervisor
Shane Schnetzler, Production Stage Manager
Xavier Clark, Dialect Coach
Cast: Maggie Siff as Lady Torrance, Pico Alexander as Valentine Xavier, Molly Kate Babos as Dolly, Michael Cullen as Jake Torrance, Matt DeAngelis, Gene Gillette, Laura Heisler as Beulah, Prudence Wright Holmes as Sister, Brian Keane as Sheriff, Julia McDermott as Carol Cutrere, Ana Reeder as Vee, Kate Skinner, Fiana Tóibín, James Waterston as David Cutrere, Dathan B. Williams as Uncle Pleasant

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

Leave a Reply