By: Samuel L. Leiter
July 18, 2023: Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending has never been a critical favorite, and only the most enraptured Williams fans are likely to admire it much. First seen on Broadway in 1957, 17 years after it premiered in Boston as Battle of Angels (which had its first New York staging Off Broadway in 1974), it underwent numerous revisions before reaching the Great White Way. The Broadway premiere, which ran only 68 times, starred Maureen Stapleton and Cliff Robertson as the doomed lovers, Lady Torrance and Valentine Xavier, while the 1989 Broadway revival starred Vanessa Redgrave and Kevin Anderson.
That production was later filmed, but the best known screen version, considerably revised from the play, appeared in 1958 as The Fugitive Kind, starring Anna Magnani and Marlon Brando. While none of these stage and screen productions gained wide approval, there have been several critically approved versions outside New York; considering Williams’s huge reputation, Orpheus Descending continues to be staged, if nowhere near as often as his far more successful works of the same golden period. I wouldn’t bet on its fortunes changing greatly with Erica Schmidt’s generally uninspired production at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience, starring Maggie Siff (of TV’s “Billions”) and Pico Alexander (The Portuguese Kid).
Valentine (or Val) represents the title’s Orpheus, the mythical, Greek, lyre-playing musician who—as also depicted in the Broadway musical Hadestown—descended into the nether regions to retrieve his late lover, Eurydice. Of course, he failed, tragically, when, despite being warned not to, he looked back to see if she was following him. Val is a handsome, guitar-playing singer with a questionable past, obsessed with his instrument, autographed by top artists like Leadbelly. Elvis Presley at 30 would’ve been perfect casting. Val finds himself stranded in a small, Hades-like Southern town, in Two Rivers County, MS, where he takes a job at a dry-goods store run by the sexually frustrated Lady Torrance and her elderly, dying, cancer-ridden husband, Jabe Torrance (Michael Cullen).
The slender, snakeskin jacket-wearing stranger, representing freedom, inflames the passions of the townswomen, including a clutch of narrow-minded gossips and a religiously fanatic painter named Vee Talbott (Ann Reeder), who transfers her Christian visions to canvas. There’s also the attractive, sluttish, but emotionally disturbed Carol Cutrere (Julia McDermott), formerly a civil rights activist once arraigned for “lewd vagrancy.” Seeing Val, she claims—despite his denials—to have known him intimately in New Orleans.
After declaring mutual hanky-panky off limits, Val and Lady are unable to resist an affair, a dangerous situation considering the violent propensities of Jabe and the other rednecks we encounter. Meanwhile, Lady is preparing to open an adjoining “confectionary,” in the fashion of the wine garden once run by her late father, an Italian immigrant. He died when the place, which served Blacks as well as whites in this Jim Crow environment, burned down at the hands of the KKK. (The play doesn’t shy from frequent n-word usage.) Lady, pregnant by Val, eventually discovers her own husband’s involvement in that act. When the possibility of her escaping the town with Val arises, tragedy, as in the myth, intrudes.
A good deal of emotional energy is expended in bringing Orpheus Descending to the Polonsky Shakespeare Center stage, but very little of it is connected to people we recognize as real rather than types. Siff and Alexander generally rise above most of the rest, she displaying both a physical and vocal prowess, especially in her moments of grand tragedy toward the end. But her technical achievements aren’t always matched by the believability of her role, and her slight foreign accent—which sounds more Canuck than Italian—is questionable. She’s the daughter of an immigrant, and, even if she came here as a child, would have eliminated the accent to sound less “other” in this parochial world.
Alexander is tall, slim, and good-looking; in contrast to Siff’s emotionality, he generally underplays; although he’s not notably exciting, his restraint is welcome in a production where more, not less, is usually operative. However, while he possesses a decent tenor, the spiritual music Justin Ellington provides for him lacks interest, and sounds nothing like what you’d expect a sexy male singer in a snakeskin jacket to be singing in the period depicted. Further, for all his attachment to that guitar, one can’t tell from his strumming, restricted to a few basic chords, whether Alexander can actually play, or if he learned just enough to fake it.
While everything about it reeks of Williams’s ripe dramaturgy—from its florid language to its Deep South setting to its themes of loneliness, desire, repression, and violence—the two and a half-hour melodrama, despite enough incident for several plays, fails to gain traction as a dramatic narrative; it depends too much on its eccentric locals and talky, poetically tinged conversations. Which is to say, director Schmidt hasn’t been able to prevent the play from dragging. Moreover, except for various insightful moments, mainly from Siff and Alexander, the acting is mundane, stereotypical, occasionally overwrought, and rife with inconsistent cracker accents.
Given William’s flights of imagination, Schmidt often engages in highly theatrical effects, such as darkening the stage so that someone’s face can be spotlighted. These moments, however, are simply not creative or consistent enough to lift the proceedings to a higher plane. Also, for some reason (budget?), she alters the violent scene of Val’s demise, in which he’s blowtorched to death, to have him instead beaten (outside the door) by thugs and torn apart by dogs. The confectionary is, oddly, indicated not so much as a particularized locale but by the off-kilter device of having clusters of white Japanese lanterns descend to float above the entire stage, their function not at first being clear.
Amy Rubin’s set of the Torrances’ “mercantile” establishment looks rather diminutive as placed at center on the wide stage, and its décor is remarkably plain. And might not something more specific have been provided to define the bare spaces at the sides? David Weiner’s excellent lighting is responsible for whatever interest the blandly realistic set creates, while Jennifer Moeller’s costumes help to identify most of the characters, although I don’t understand why Carol is dressed in a long, thin raincoat over what I think is a negligee, nor why she’s barefoot. Then again, her entire character is a conundrum, so questioning her fashion choices is probably a waste of time.
Orpheus Descending will continue to challenge inventive directors seeking to retrieve it from its widely underappreciated limbo. The current revival, though, is one I’d caution any such director not to look back on.
Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Through August 6, 2023
Photography: Gerry Goodstein