No one digs into the unsettling darkness at the heart of the American South, and particularly at the heart of the Southern family, like Tennessee Williams. His best-known plays, A Streetcar Named Desire or The Glass Menagerie, are so familiar in their outlines that one almost has to take a bold directorial approach to make their strangeness come into relief again. But in Williams’s less canonical plays, the bleakness and rage and despair shine brightly, even scorchingly. This is especially true in the intimate setting of the sanctuary at St. John’s Lutheran Church, with the audience in the pews and the action taking place all around.
Orpheus Descending is feverish and claustrophobic even compared to other Williams plays. It is set in an insular Louisiana town whose history is so omnipresent that every conversation turns into a long and sensational anecdote about something done twenty years ago. The townspeople, especially its gossipy older women, act like a Greek chorus, constantly retelling and reflecting on the action and the other people around them. Lady Torrance, the damaged woman at the heart of their scrutiny, was involved in one of the central community dramas constantly retold. Lady (Irene Glezos) is the daughter of “the Dago,” a Sicilian immigrant who ran a popular, albeit mostly illegal, wine garden during Prohibition, the place where the town’s young couples went in search of a private spot for premarital sex (Williams, as ever, is refreshingly frank about sex). But when he served drinks to black residents (referred to much less politely in context, of course), the town set the garden afire, and Lady’s father died in the blaze. This was twenty years ago, but the story remains central to the town’s communal memory.
Lady runs the local dry-goods store. Her husband, Jabe (Keir Dullea), the store’s owner, is dying of cancer. Then a local do-gooder, the sheriff’s slightly otherworldly wife (Mia Dillon), tries to help Lady by bringing her a temporary clerk. Val (Todd d’Amour) is a musician and drifter who’s trying to run away from his dissolute New Orleans life even as the town’s “bad girl”, Carol Cutrere (Beth Bartley), is trying to drag him right back to it. Lady’s already precarious position in the town, and her long-simmering discontent with her marriage, is soon to be upended.
The strength of the production is its oppressive atmosphere. We see Lady’s history and character dissected in excruciating detail by the town gossips well before we see Lady. The story of how her father lost his life is retold multiple times. The narrative, such as it is, builds excruciatingly slowly, mostly through the choice of Williams and partly through those of director Austin Pendleton. We spend two thirds of it watching subplots and character studies involving the visions and ambitions of the sheriff’s wife and Carol’s bitter relationship with her family, especially her brother, who is also Lady’s former lover. There is a slow, slow build to the central love affair between Lady and Val.
But in some ways, here, the milieu is more interesting than the relationship. While Irene Glezos’s Lady is richly shaded, with her strength, her stubborn pride and her exhausted desperation all evident, Todd d’Amour’s Val often seems abrasive rather than magnetic, pugnacious rather than devastatingly attractive. He’s a bit of a dangerous character, to be sure, but he’s supposed to have an almost mystical effect on not just Lady but Carol and even Vee Talbott, the sheriff’s wife. Instead, there’s something shifty and calculating about him. You see why Carol, with her rebelliousness and her damaged, flaunted sexuality, is drawn to him, but it takes a long time to understand why Vee is drawn to him, and certainly why Lady wants him around. His relationship with Lady does reach a point of tenderness but it’s an awfully long time coming.
Once the central dynamic is finally set in motion the action unspools shockingly and tragically, and always under the constant, menacing scrutiny of the community. Orpheus Descending may not be a major addition to the Williams canon, but sure is an unsettling one.
Orpheus Descending is on until 14th May 2016. Click here for tickets.