Orpheus Descending

by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Fran Weinberg
At the Huntington Theatre Studio, Boston -June 1998

 Reviewed by G.L. Horton

"Orpheus Descending" is set wide and shallow in the Huntington Studio's black box.  Jeff Gardiner's shabby genteel 1950's emporium, relieved by small aesthetic touches from an exotic hand, sprawls across the length of the Huntington's Studio 210, more indicative of the scope of Tennessee Williams' ambition in this play than of the claustrophobic quality of the small town general store where it takes place. While Jabe Torrance (Michael Bradshaw), the crass old bully of an owner, is dying in an upstairs room, the store is serving as a temporary refuge for the sensitive misfits who are the play's central characters.   These three characters are variations on William's "spoiled priest" theme, innately kind and gifted people whose  impulse is to put their gifts at the service of their fellows, but who are crushed by the cruelty, casual and deliberate, that surrounds them.
All the elements of a great and illuminating tragedy are in place.  Williams shows a society built (like most) on a great crime: the eradication of Native Americans and the degradation of imported African slaves, both groups defined not as neighbors to be loved  but as subhuman objects for exploitation.  There is only one non-white character in the play  -- no, not really a character, a living symbol-- Conjure Man (Jason Stewart), who doesn't speak a word but will perform the wolf-like Choctaw War Cry for a dollar.  The mere sight of this old man sends the respectable ladies of the town into hysterical panic  -- their comfort, perhaps even their survival, is based on keeping evidence of the Great Crime out of sight and out of mind.   To this end all of them have hardened their hearts, constricted their intelligence, and starved their souls: the better to repress anyone and anything that threatens to remind them of the human nature we all share.

Almost all the inhabitants of the play  have succeeded so well in stunting themselves that they are dwindled into caricatures,  objects of fear and of derisive laughter rather than of empathy.  We in the audience are pushed to see ourselves in the outsiders, the exceptions, as if their damage were unique and not a variation on a universal damage.  This is pathos rather than tragedy. But Williams' pathos, a delicate bloom that flowers in the kind of performance the author calls "the incontinent blaze of a live theatre.., the color, the grace and levitation, the structural pattern in motion, the quick interplay of live beings suspended like fitful lightning in a cloud", is a rare and wonderful experience.  Thanks to the dedicated artistry of the Boston Actors' Ensemble and to the sure and sensitive direction of Fran Weinberg for making this experience available to the fortunate few who saw their Equity Members Project production.

There are eighteen characters in Williams' play, and they all need fine actors to embody them.  Nothing less than fine acting will do, if the play is to work at all.  All the two-dimensional minor characters must bring the forces that made them that way onto the stage with them if we are to understand how they contribute to the play's horrifying climax, and grant their actions the moral dimension Williams intends.  The humorous lines and the comic by-play was given its due, yes, but these excellent Boston actors always managed to provide three dimensional grounding, whether they had no lines at all or a few dozen to work with.  Hooray for Dorothy Brodesser, Roberta Gilbert, Joseph Zamparelli Jr, Bill Gardiner, Christopher Noel Hall, Warren Steele, Fred Robbins, Lida McGirr,  and Norma Fine.

Donna Sorbello has the most fully drawn character in Lady Torrance, a role whose challenging richness alone would make the play worth reviving.  Lady is the daughter of a marvelous, heroic -- even mythic-- personage; an Italian immigrant who came over as an organ grinder with a monkey, and eventually founded a vineyard and an orchard and a wine garden restaurant where he presided as a kind of benevolent deity who enabled the stifled young people of the town to experience beauty and freedom and innocently sensual joy.  But her father never won the hearts of the brutal men who ran the town, never lost his outsider status.  To them he was just a wop, and when he served a black man in his establishment, the enforcers of the town's inhuman code burned it all down, and him along with it.  Pregnant but cast off by her conforming lover, Lady was forced into marriage with old Jabe Torrance-- Hades to her father's male version of the all nurturing Ceres-- and live the half-life of a Persephone imprisoned in barren bitterness.  Anna Mangani was an Earth Mother as Lady in the movie version, but there is nothing earthy about Donna Sorbello-- she is all flame and air; banked and smoldering at the beginning, bright and beautiful and dangerous as her body awakens and her dreams catch fire.

Gordon Gauntlett, Jr plays Valentine Xavier, a thirty-year-old orphan in a snakeskin jacket who carries a blues guitar he no longer has the heart to play.  The nurturing father-gods of Val's pantheon are the great black blues musicians of the thirties  -- just niggers, as far as this town is concerned.. Val is a musician who descends into hell, and he may even have some of the mesmerizing glitter of the immortal Orpheus: it is a part that may make use of an androgynous, Dionysian beauty.  Both men and women call Val dangerously attractive.  But Gauntlett plays down that aspect of a character who has been desired by many, and has accepted money from enough of his partners to feel that his own sexuality is corrupted.   Gauntlett's Val is keeping himself under wraps, willing to serve but not to be bought and used. One of the townsfolk tells Val that Lady is the only one in town who might hire him, and, after struggling against against the survival instinct that has allowed her to exist in a hostile environment, she does so.  They alternate being defensive and vulnerable with each other, but the play's great power lies in the magical moments when the two are able to recognize that they are kindred spirits, and that their kinship makes the whole world kin.  The town operates relentlessly to isolate and disempower or destroy anyone who breaks free of the deathly hell they call their way of life,  so the pair's fate is sealed right then, but another two hours of play is required to trace the working out of that fate and link its hard won knowledge to that of the other character who is one of the "fugitive kind", the poor little rich girl Carol Cutrere.

Carol  is the sister of David Cutrere (David Loar), the lover who jilted Lady.  She is another familiar Williams type, the woman whose ideal of universal love has failed, to be replaced by a compulsion to get drunk and sleep around, and to bear the condemnation of the scandalized mob as if it were a martyr's crown of thorns.  Alisha Jansky don't quite make this character credible.  It would be lovely to think such women no longer exist, and for that reason Jansky's generation doesn't understand or believe in them.  But it still seems to me as it did to Williams that our culture is rife with sleazy Madonnas, making a sexual spectacle of themselves in their struggle with guilt and grace.  ("Lady", as you may have noticed, is the English translation of the Italian "Donna" or "Madonna".) The difference today is that we celebrate that spectacle when it makes money, and prescribe therapy when it doesn't.-- a point of view that sometimes seems to extend to Tennesee Williams and his work, too.  Kudos to Sorbello and Weinberg and the Ensemble, for having a better and a higher vision.