Tuesday, April 1, 2008
2nd Story Theatre's Orpheus Descending
It’s been a good season for late Tennessee Williams plays in Providence. First, in the fall, the Brown/Trinity Consortium put on a big, uninhibited Camino Real; now, Warren’s 2nd Story Theatre is showing Orpheus Descending. The play has an inauspicious history: it flopped first when it was debuted in 1940 (as Battle of Angels) and then again after Williams revised it and had it produced in 1957. Its cool reception must have been in part due to its busy-ness. Though it deals with the familiar themes of Williams’s major works and the pillars of his bleak existentialism—isolation, alienation, captivity—it lacks the narrative purity and poetic discipline of The Glass Menagerie or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In those plays, the family, its bonds covalent and confining, is the fundamental social and dramatic unit; the outside world is a cruel force to unite against rather than a physical space to navigate and understand. If Williams’s characters are trapped by secrets and delusions, it is because they have chosen those comforts over the world’s callous indifference. The problem is that Orpheus Descending has this indifferent world as its subject rather than its nebulous antagonist, but Williams has not taken in this wider view with a proportionately refined philosophical lens. The small southern town in which Lady Torrance and Carol Cutrere vie for the attentions and energy of outsider Valentine Xavier is hell because, ipso facto, the world is hell. This is not much of a conclusion and makes for pretty timid—which is to say safe, not quiet—drama. Indeed, the show bursts with the motion of characters and ideas, as if stirring pabulum might make it any more nutritive. Credit must go to the fine cast, then, for making the show as robust as it is.
The elements of Southern Gothic are laid out for us in the first scene. In the main room of a small-town general store, Dolly Hamma (Sandra Slonim) and Beulah Binnings (Susie B. Powers) are setting up a potluck buffet celebrating the return of shop-owner Jabe Torrance from a medical check-up in New Orleans. While they gossip about his long-term prospects, taking no small pleasure in their own health, Carol Cutrere, a “fallen” daughter of a local plantation-owner, stumbles drunkenly into the shop: her profligate behavior has gotten her kicked out of town and she needs to use the shop’s phone to tell a friend to expect her that night. Lurching in after she’s done is local pariah Uncle Pleasant, a mutely benign Choctaw Indian who disgusts the delicate Dolly and Beulah but fascinates young Carol. Into this combustible mix come Vee Talbott (Lynne Collinson), a visionary painter, and her young ward, Valentine Xavier (Kyle Maddock). Talbott, an inveterate do-gooder, hopes to secure a job at the shop for Val, an itinerant guitarist; for his part, Val seems only to want to stay out of trouble. His best intentions are thwarted when Carol recognizes him from his days as a Don Juan and a small-time hustler and invites him to go out “jooking” with her that evening. Eventually, to the sardonic chagrin of Greek chorus-girls Dolly and Beulah, he submits, and the two run out into the southern night. Gossips, tramps, noble savages, mystics, handsome loners—this over-burdened scene is a gallery of clichés, shrill and graceless. Williams never finds the particular in the general: gossips are just gossips, tramps are never really just tramps, and the guy with the guitar actually might have the power to save.
The show is energized when Val gets a job from the shop’s temporary manager, Lady (Rae Mancini), Jabe Torrance’s wife. Like Val, whose authenticity and artistry have forced him to the margins of society, Lady lives on the social fringe; her Italian father had been killed by a gang of racist thugs, and her heritage is a liability in the parochial small town. But she makes no compromises: she refuses to repudiate her past or to renounce her instinctive sympathy for outcasts. Still, there is the feeling that she is defined and limited by her oppositional attitude. Val’s virility—with his guitar and his snakeskin jacket he is both creator and tempter—arouses her desire to love, not just live, and to engage, rather than judge. The tension between these two is terrific, the parlous urgency of their scenes both sexual and philosophical. Lady believes that humans can share their freedom; Val is certain that the best they can do is to be trapped and alone together.
Their scenes are full of the sort of portentous symbolism that we expect from Williams and that renders many of his lines totally inert, but Maddock and Mancini find the right pitch for their character’s tendentious monologues. Although much is made about Val’s naturally warm body temperature, it is Lady’s avian febrility that we feel; Mancini portrays Lady’s yearnings with a wonderful fragility, though her heavily accented speech is occasionally arrhythmic and hesitant. Over the run of the show, she will surely master the demands of the script and the cadences of her accent. Kyle Maddock, who in profile resembles the playwright and actor Sam Shepard, reads (or at least transmits) Val’s heat as coolness, and gives it a convincing honesty and sexual allure. Val and Lady are the real center of a play rigged with plot contrivances and caricature.
We know that the hopes these two have for their freedom will be crushed—this is Tennessee Williams, after all—and that the futures they plan for will remain nothing more than a dream. But when tragedy finally arrives it’s in the form of melodrama: Lady is pregnant! Jabe has a decades-old secret! Vee, the visionary painter, goes blind! It’s Holy Saturday! If even Williams’s best plays walk the edge of respectability, this one trips right over it. Maudlin in its sentiments, obvious in its symbolism, inelegant in its language, and generic in its observations, Orpheus Descending is compelling only for the opportunities it gives to actors to redeem it. It’s a pleasure watching 2nd Story’s cast do just that.
(Orpheus Descending is showing Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 pm for the next three weeks; Sunday matinées are at 3:00.)