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Orpheus Descending

A rarely seen Tennessee Williams drama plays a Lutheran Church in the West Village.

Beth Bartley and Todd d'Amour star in Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending, directed by Austin Pendleton, at St. John's Lutheran Church.
(© Ride Hamilton)

Smell is the sense most closely associated with memory and the producers of Orpheus Descending are certainly bringing back some strong ones by setting their show in the musty St. John's Lutheran Church. Even in the heart of the West Village, the air we inhale upon entering the sanctuary transports us to a small-town congregation in the American South. It is a powerful first impression for a drama that is not always so pungent. Still, this mounting in association with the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival offers a fair take on one of the author's rarely-seen works (the last major production was a 1989 Broadway revival starring Vanessa Redgrave). Super fans of Williams won't want to pass up this opportunity to see one of his more obscure works, but they shouldn't expect the brilliance of The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire.

An American variation on Greek mythology, Orpheus Descending tells the story of Lady Torrance (Irene Glezos), a Sicilian immigrant in a small Southern town. She watched her father's American dream go up in flames when the local Klan burned down his wine garden, a conflagration in which he perished. She now serves in purgatory as the manager of the general store owned by her ancient husband, Jabe (a very unsettling Keir Dullea). She sees a possibility for salvation, however, in handsome drifter Val Xavier (Todd d'Amour), who takes a job in the store after his car breaks down. Despite the fact that he is a stranger in these parts (or perhaps because of it), Lady instantly feels a connection to the mysterious loner with a guitar always at his side.

D'Amour gives a beguiling performance as Val: With his monotone speech and hair gelled into a topiary, there is something inexplicably alluring about him. Cultural critic Erika Doss speculates that Williams wrote Val with Elvis Presley in mind, "Provoked, perhaps, by newspaper accounts of 14,000 fans tearing at Elvis' clothes during a 1955 concert in Jacksonville." It's an event that certainly has an uncanny resemblance to Orpheus being ripped to shreds by frenzied maenads. D'Amour has the stealthy magnetism of a rock star, lending a subconscious urgency to this American Orpheus scouring the Deep South for his lost Eurydice.

Irene Glezos plays Lady Torrance in Orpheus Descending.
(© Ride Hamilton)

As Lady, Glezos is a Williams heroine in definite need of escape. A captive beauty in enemy hands, she expresses epic sadness in her downturned lips. At the same time, Glezos brings a fire to the role that lets us know that this is a woman of great power in her own right. Lady's clandestine romance with Val is the heart of this play and Glezos and d'Amour make it as dangerous and exciting as a first affair.

Unfortunately, the play is rarely so alive when our two protagonists are offstage. This may be the product of the script's troubled development: Orpheus began its life as Battle of Angels, a 1940 flop that Williams decided to take another shot at in 1957 under the new title, Orpheus Descending. Despite the revisions, it still feels like the work of a writer just becoming acquainted with his talents, not yet ready to fully commit to his inspired ideas.

This is especially apparent in the character of local socialite Carol Cutrere (an competent but unmemorable Beth Bartley), who reads like a rough draft of Blanche DuBois. Her pursuit of Val feels only half-hearted and her pariah status is not entirely explained.

Similarly, the use of gossipy church ladies as a Greek chorus is a clever conceit that doesn't quite work in practice, leading to a muddled exposition. The ensemble should help create the atmosphere of this suffocating small town, but they mostly stand around modeling Tony French's evocative period costumes (Dolly's Kim Davis dress is a particularly nice touch). The uneven supporting cast doesn't help alleviate this problem, with the notable exception of an eerily authentic David Pendleton as The Conjure Man and the severe and intimidating Michelle Tauber as Nurse Porter.

Lady (Irene Glezos) and Val (Todd d'Amour) embrace in Orpheus Descending.
(© Ride Hamilton)

Director Austin Pendleton (who previously helmed this play in 1976) smartly utilizes the venue, with characters entering between pews and calling out lines from all corners of the sanctuary. Lighting designer Susannah Baron creates some beautiful moonlit moments for Val and Lady, but it comes at the expense of keeping us in the soporific dark for long stretches, a dangerous choice for a plot as slow to develop as this one.

This is a decent production of an unspectacular play, sure to excite serious students of Williams, but likely to leave the casual viewer confused and bored by its meandering plot. If you consider yourself a member of the former group, run out and buy tickets now: We're probably not going to see another major New York production of Orpheus Descending for a very long time.