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Orpheus Descending – Theatre/Theater – Los Angeles Theater Review   




picture - Orpheus DescendingTheater Review 

by Harvey Perr 

published January 24, 2010 


Orpheus Descending 

now playing in Los Angeles at the Theater/Theatre 

through February 21 


Sometimes it’s enough to just hear the words, to be reminded anew that the American theater had, in Tennessee Williams, its truest poet of the damaged and the disenfranchised, and that his voice still rings with absolute clarity. In the strong reading of Orpheus Descending which Theatre/Theater is serving up, you will most certainly hear that voice.


The history of the play is fascinating because it is not only a re-working of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice but a re-working as well of his first Broadway-bound play, Battle Of Angels, which closed in Boston after receiving abusively bad reviews; seventeen years later, it emerged as the play we now know – his most nakedly poetic play outside of Camino Real, with which it shares common themes – and, though it was hardly the big success he had hoped for, it went on to become an overblown bit of steamy film-making known as The Fugitive Kind, in which the screen’s two greatest actors – Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani – never really found alchemy between each other and who, at any rate, smothered the play with their intensity. It was not until a London revival with Vanessa Redgrave that the play finally received its due. There is a poem with the same title – "Orpheus Descending," that is – which Williams once wrote was his best poem in the collection In The Winter Of Cities, and which memorably said, “And you must learn, even you, what we have learned, / the passion there is for declivity in this world, / the impulse to fall that follows a rising fountain.” These same words crept into Lord Byron’s speech in Camino Real and states boldly what is at the heart of Orpheus Descending.


picture - Orpheus DescendingIn a small Southern town – which proves to be the Hell our Orpheus descends to, and which our Eurydice needs desperately to be taken out of – a thirty-year old drifter named Valentine Xavier arrives, seeking a new beginning to a life already half-destroyed by excess, looking for work and finding it in a mercantile shop run by Lady Torrance, whose husband lies upstairs, dying of cancer and constantly banging for help on his bedroom floor, which can be heard, with an incessant clamor, on the ceiling of the shop. Val wears a snakeskin jacket (“We’re all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life!”) and brandishes, as if it were a weapon, a guitar on which great blues artists like Leadbelly and Bessie Smith have etched their names. Lady Torrance, lonely and harboring a need to avenge her father’s death – and oblivious to the fact that her dying husband was responsible for the fire her father was burned alive in – slowly finds that her escape is in the hands of this young vagrant musician.


You will have to be patient with the play. This Val (Gale Harold) is hardly smoldering with danger; he seems a rather shy young man, in fact. And this Lady Torrance (Denise Crosby) is hardly vulnerable but is instead sturdy and solid in flesh as well as manner. Only Carol Cutrere (Claudia Mason), the wasted beauty who sees in Val a kindred spirit and persists in getting him to go “juking” with her, gives off the kind of heat we expect from Williams. But hang in there. As the tenuous and elusive connection between Val and Lady Torrance begins to take hold, Williams’s tenderness towards these characters is fully explored, and when we reach the beautifully muted end of the second act, we are, for a glorious moment, in theatrical heaven.


picture - Orpheus DescendingAnd Harold and Crosby keep getting better and better, until we are so enmeshed in their lives, so under the spell of their union, that we feel as if we have intruded on their secret selves. This may be his maiden voyage as director, but Lou Pepe displays extraordinary sensitivity in the way he brings these two actors to gentle life. If the outside world didn’t exist, they would indeed be ideal and idealized lovers. But, of course, in Williams’s world, the outside world not only exists but is indifferent to the souls reaching out to each other in need and desire. It is not always easy, in a Williams play, to reconcile the ugliness of the world, often seen as grotesque and bordering on the farcical, with the tragic fate of his central characters, and Pepe reveals his directorial inexperience in his treatment of the characters in this cruel real world; one wishes that they didn’t emerge as caricatures or stereotypes but that they had inner lives, too. The one exception is Francesca Casale who brings real depth to a variety of characters, especially as an artist whose revelations are causing her increasing blindness, and as a nurse who may seem insensitive but who sees clearly what is going on around her.


The production cannot fully escape the melodrama that finally brings the play to a close, but it is nonetheless as theatrically effective as emerging from a nightmare. This may not be the definitive production of Orpheus Descending, but, from the point of view of one who has seen it in its various transformations, it is one that makes its points most sharply and, without losing a sense of reality, captures the richness of its poetry.


harveyperr @


photos by Ginger Perkins


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