Tennessee Williams never seems to have given up on his first fully staged play, working on it for 17 years although it was not successful in any of its extant three versions. As Battle of Angels it opened in Boston in 1940, a city famous for its conservative, prurient views in those days, and closed two weeks later. According to contemporary reviews refined film star Miriam Hopkins was totally miscast as the passionate Italian Myra Torrance.
It next appeared on Broadway as the short-lived Orpheus Descending starring Maureen Stapleton in the role of the Southern Italian now called Lady Torrance, and Cliff Robertson as the New Orleans troubadour who has made a living singing to his guitar, definitely odd casting. A third version renamed The Fugitive Kind was filmed by Sidney Lumet with Marlon Brando as the guitar-playing drifter, Anna Magnani as Lady Torrance and Joanne Woodward as the patrician rebel Carol Cutrere.
Last seen on Broadway in the Peter Hall production in 1989 starring Vanessa Redgrave, Orpheus Descending is now being staged by director Erica Schmidt, most recently known for her all-female version of Macbeth and her musical staging of Cyrano, in her take for the Theatre for a New Audience with Maggie Siff and Pico Alexander in the leading roles. Unfortunately, she has not managed to solve the play’s problems either or to make the play seem any less a grim and episodic collection of scenes and transitions.
Set in a small Southern town in Two Rivers County, Mississippi, the play takes place at the Torrance Mercantile Store. The play begins on the day that the dying owner Jabe returns home from the hospital in Memphis. He and his Italian wife Lady have an adversarial relationship and there is no love lost between them. When Valentine Xavier, an itinerant musician fleeing his previous dissolute life in New Orleans, shows up asking for a job, Lady hires him as her husband can no longer tend to the store. However, she keeps him at arm’s length.
Carol Cutrere, the rebel daughter of the local plantation family, recognizes Val from her times in New Orleans and attempts to get him to make love to her. Even the Sheriff’s wife, the artist Vee Talbott is affected by him and is stimulated to have a burst of artistic creativity. Other women in town find Val a disturbing presence as well while business in the store picks up. Lady finally learns who is responsible for the death of her father and the burning of his wine garden on Moon Lake and she and Val are drawn to each other while her husband upstairs in his room grows suspicious. The opening of Lady’s Confectionary adjacent to the store (a new night spot) precipitates the final tragedy.
The play mixes both Christian symbolism and Greek mythology in an uneasy blend. Valentine Xavier (i.e. Savior) who carries a guitar is a combination of the Christian Jesus Christ with his healing powers and the Greek god Orpheus whose musicianship has power over Hades, as well as St. Valentine, the Christian martyr. Here his descent is into the hell of a Southern town marred by racial violence, bigotry, misogyny, and unrequited sexual passion. Having never had a child though she is in her 50’s, the barren Lady Torrance finds that she is pregnant by her fruitful liaison with Val. Carol Cutrere, the pariah though patrician rebel who wanders through town taking the side of the down-trodden minorities, is a Cassandra who brings warnings that no one believes but that come true in the end.
Among the problems with the production is the fact that there is no chemistry between Siff and Alexander. We are supposed to believe that their encounter not only brings Lady Torrance back to life but that Val falls in love for the first time. However, this is not demonstrated by their performances. Williams’ requirement that his heroine use a Southern yet Italian accent is a difficult assignment and Siff seems uncomfortable at this while her Italian accent comes and goes. More damaging still is that while we are told that Val Xavier has a positive effect on all the women who encounter him, Lady Torrance, Carol Cutrere, Vee Talbott (the Sheriff’s wife), and causing the men to be jealous, Alexander fails to exude the kind of charisma needed for this role. Not only is he too bland, he often fades into the woodwork when we should be conscious of his presence at all times.
As Carol Cutrere, a role that is almost a parody, Julia McDermott looking like a 50’s starlet seems to be a refugee from a Hollywood filming of a William Faulkner novel. Michael Cullen’s racist, bigoted and misogynistic Jabe Torrance is offstage so much of the play that he is unable to make much of an impression. However, as the sadistic Sheriff Talbott, Brian Keane makes his several appearances register into sinister, threatening encounters. As his wife Vee, the artist inspired by Val’s visit, Ana Reeder seems too young to be this brow-beaten Southern woman. Prudence Wright Holmes and Kate Skinner are amusing as the elderly Temple sisters, while Laura Heisler and Molly Kate Babos as gossipy neighbors give clichéd performances as a sort of Greek chorus.
Aside from the new casting, Schmidt’s production seems to be most different in its set, which places the dry-goods store center stage surrounded by a “vast expanse of darkness outside the door” in Williams’ own words. Unfortunately, lighting designer David Weiner has placed a row of large lights on either side which light up the actors as they approach the set so that we have no sense of a foreboding environment. Amy Rubin’s minimalist store setting with no items for sale has no atmosphere for this hothouse environment, taking away one of the necessary elements in this drama. The rather bland monochromatic costumes by Jennifer Moeller add little to the play’s visuals or the Southern ambiance.
It would be a pleasure to report that the Theatre for a New Audience’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending has restored this minor play to a higher place in the author’s canon. Unfortunately, the play remains a poetic and lyrical failure with too many symbols and tangents. While Maggie Siff works hard to bring the play into focus she is unable to do so alone and her Val whose singing and musicianship leaves something to be desired does not give her much help. The use of the nearly empty stage in Erica Schmidt’s production vitiates much of the play’s tension and Deep Southern flavor. Orpheus Descending continues to remain of one the author’s most interesting failures.
Orpheus Descending (through August 6, 2023)
Theatre for a New Audience
Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, between Lafayette Avenue and Fulton Street, in Brooklyn
For tickets, visit http://www.tfana.org
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission