Symbolism fills `Orpheus' in D.C.

Actors are making a noble effort with Williams' script


May 22, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

As the centerpieces of its summer-long Tennessee Williams festival, Washington's Kennedy Center is producing the playwright's three greatest hits. Across town, however, Arena Stage has boldly mounted one of Williams' more troubled and rarely seen plays, Orpheus Descending.

Williams spent 17 years writing and rewriting this script, which had been his first professionally produced play - and his first commercial failure - under the title Battle of Angels in 1940.

In 1957, when Williams re-christened it Orpheus Descending and declared it "finally finished," it not only contained versions of many of his classic characters - the sensual stranger, the dying patriarch, the woman lost in a fantasy world - but enough religious and mythological imagery to choke several plays.

And, intriguing as it may be to see Orpheus Descending in the context of the other Williams' plays being staged in Washington, Orpheus remains more of a curiosity than a satisfying theatrical experience.

One indication of the text's defects is the way the tone of director Molly Smith's production veers awkwardly between realism and surrealism.

For example, the female protagonist, Lady Torrance, is played by Chandler Vinton in a completely naturalistic and empathetic manner as the frustrated wife of a sick, mean-spirited, elderly husband. At the other end of the spectrum, Frederick Strother's character of a conjure man is jarringly enigmatic and otherworldly.

The design elements only add to the production's confused tone. The edges of the walls and floor of designer Bill C. Ray's set are singed (representing the fiery underworld of the Orpheus myth?) and designer Michael Gilliam's background lighting frequently and inexplicably changes color from fuchsia to blue to red.

Williams' plot concerns a drifter named Valentine Xavier who takes a job in a dry goods store, ostensibly to help the ailing proprietor's wife, Lady. Like Orpheus rescuing Eurydice from the afterworld, Val resurrects long-dead passions in Lady.

For the first half of Smith's production, Vinton's Lady and Matt Bogart's handsome, guitar-strumming Val remain emotionally distant. Even when they acknowledge and act on their passion, however, the connection they forge seems motivated more by need than desire.

There are several other types of passion represented on stage as well. Kate Goehring's Carol Cutrere is a self-proclaimed "exhibitionist," a half-crazed, hedonistic modern-day Cassandra - no wonder she's a pariah in this hypocritically self-righteous small town. And Janice Duclos' Vee Talbott, the sheriff's wife, is an artist prone to visions that are slowly destroying her eyesight.

Williams laid the symbolism on thickly in this play. Val's guitar is a stand-in for Orpheus' lyre; his snakeskin jacket suggests everything from the snake in the Garden of Eden to the snakebite that doomed Eurydice to the notion of shedding a skin and starting again. There's even a Greek chorus in the form of gossiping townswomen (portrayed as stereotypically as their redneck husbands). The play is also rife with references to death, but though the action ends the day before Easter, there's no resurrection in Williams' updated Orpheus tale.

One reason Orpheus Descending may have meant so much to Williams is that he put so much into it - not just time, but almost all of the themes and character types that drove his work. In the end, it's too much for one play to bear. And, noble as most of the efforts of Arena's stalwart actors may be, they can't enliven this labored script.

Orpheus Descending

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and most Sundays, noon May 26, June 1 and 2. Through June 27

Tickets: $40-$59

Call: 202-488-3300

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