POSTED Thu. Mar 10, 2016

Creative Culture

'Orpheus Descending' Brings a Southern Spin to Classical Myth
Cree McCree
Written by CREE MCCREE

Stranger blows into town. Falls in love with a married woman. As dramatic plot devices go, it’s one of the oldest in the book. But the guy in the snakeskin jacket is no ordinary drifter, and the pokey little southern town where he lands ain’t exactly Mayberry. It’s deep in the heart of Tennessee Williams country, where the sultry air is thick with menace, honeysuckle words have a serpent’s bite and the stranger with the guitar slung over his back is Orpheus Descending.

“I’m thrilled to introduce New Orleans to this play, which hasn’t been done in an entire generation,” says director Jef Hall-Flavin, programming director for the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival, where Orpheus was first resurrected. “It’s poetic and sexy and dangerous.”

Sure to be a highlight of the 2016 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (March 30-April 3), which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, the Southern Repertory Theatre’s production of Orpheus Descending opens in advance of festival week on March 12 and runs through April 3 at UNO’s Robert E. Nims Theatre.

Like Val, the Orpheus figure played by noted New Orleans thespian Todd d’Amour, Williams’ three-act odyssey has a checkered past.

In its original 1940 incarnation, titled Battle of Angels, the play flopped during Boston previews, dealing a crushing blow to the then-fledgling playwright. But Williams persevered for 17 years, rewriting and tweaking the script, which finally debuted on Broadway as Orpheus Descending in 1957.

Even then, the debut was a mixed bag. Its first Broadway run played a scant 68 performances, while a 1959 film adaptation starring Marlon Brando fared poorly as well. Orpheus finally picked up steam 30 years later, with the modest back-to-back success of a 1989 Broadway revival and a 1990 film, both starring Vanessa Redgrave.

Only in 2010 did Orpheus Descending hit critical mass, becoming the runaway hit of that year’s Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival, where it quickly became a mainstay.

“It’s my favorite Williams play,” says Hall-Flavin. “It’s a record of his youth and says so much about who Tennessee Williams is. He knew human beings in both their pure, exalted selves and their deep, dark evil hearts, and put them both on stage. A Mississippi state senator who comes to the [Provincetown] festival every year was so enthralled by the play that he raised money to bring it to Mississippi for a three-city tour.”

Irene Glezos, who reprises her starring role as Lady in the Southern Rep production, traveled with the company to Mississippi, which stopped in Williams’ birthplace of Columbus as well as Clarksdale, site of the Cutrer mansion that inspired Stella and Blanche’s beloved Belle Reve in A Streetcar Named Desire. That stop was especially significant for Beth Bartley, who plays Carol, the Cassandra figure in Orpheus.

“In Clarksdale, I performed Carol’s ‘Christ-bitten reformer’ monologue on the grand staircase of the actual Cutrer mansion,” recalls Bartley. The actress first delivered Carol’s searing monologue during her auditions for Julliard, and its vivid evocations of the Jim Crow-era South ring just as true today.

“There’s only one black character, a conjurer who is part Choctaw Indian, who doesn’t speak throughout the entire play,” says Hall-Flavin. “But in our production, he’s vital to the story. People don’t think of Williams as a political playwright, but there are so many topical allusions in the play.”

This being Williams, politics is embedded in allegory and myth, which transcends its specific time and place and enters the realm of the universal.

“Val [as Orpheus] descends into the purgatory of a small town that cannot stand anything different,” says Hall-Flavin. “He tries to get Lady out, so she’s the Eurydice figure. Lady actually says ‘I’ve been dead for 15 years’ at one point.’” [Editor’s Note: In the original Greek tale of Orpheus, the titular character descends into the underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, who died of a snake bite]

To evoke that underworld visually, set designer Michael Kramer hewed closely to Williams’ original stage directions. “It’s ostensibly set in a mercantile shop, but as Williams specified, the set is not realistic,” the director notes. “It’s beautiful, and kind of scary.”

So is the play itself, which reaches its climax on Easter Saturday. And here in New Orleans, in an especially auspicious piece of timing, Orpheus Descending will be performed during Easter weekend.

“Orpheus was used as a placeholder for Jesus Christ when early Christians were converting people with multiple gods,” explains Hall-Flavin. “He was the closest thing they had to a resurrection, because he visits the underworld and comes back.”

Like the Greek god on which the play is based, Orpheus Descending has been rising like a phoenix since its first Provincetown production to take its rightful place among the classics of the Williams canon.

“If you love Streetcar and Glass Menagerie, you’ll hear some of the same soaring language in this play,” says Hall-Flavin. “It is also incredibly satisfying. The main characters are freed by love, and people come away from it with a feeling of exultation.”

‘Orpheus Descending’ opens Saturday, March 12 and runs Thursday-Sunday through April 3 at Robert E. Nims Theatre, University of New Orleans, 2000 Lakeshore Drive. Tickets range from $20-$40.

Image: Irene Glezos as Lady and Todd d’Amour as Val. Photo by John B. Barrois.

POSTED Jul 18, 2019

Creative Culture

August in New Orleans

August in New Orleans

New Orleans may be known as a party town, but locals work as hard here as they do in any city. Take a break from the routine with…....

Written by CREE MCCREE
POSTED Dec 14, 2018


Breaking Down the Best New Orleans & Louisiana Holiday Music

Breaking Down the Best New Orleans & Louisiana Holiday Music

Hey, the weather outside is kind of frightful! About as frightful as it gets down here anyways (also, note that next week temperatures will be back in the…....

Written by ADAM KARLIN
POSTED May 10, 2017

Creative Culture

Carnival Redux at the New Orleans Museum of Art

Carnival Redux at the New Orleans Museum of Art

On May 12 the New Orleans Museum of Art will fling open its doors for Masquerade: Late Night at NOMA, a costume party replete with float builders, mask-makers,…....

POSTED Dec 23, 2016


Some Holiday Music for the Weekend

Some Holiday Music for the Weekend

Happy holidays, y’all. We hope you find plenty to occupy you during this busy Christmas weekend, but if you find yourself having a small, quiet moment, or just…....

Written by ADAM KARLIN

    Our Local Publisher Partners

    • The Arts Council of New Orleans
    • WWNO
    • WWOZ
    • PRC
    • NOMA
    • The Historic New Orleans Collection
    • Southern Food
    • Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities
    The Arts Council of New Orleans

    The Arts Council of New Orleans is a private, non-profit organization designated as the City’s official arts agency. The Arts Council serves as one of eight regional distributing agencies for state arts funds and administers available municipal arts grants and the Percent For Art program for the City of New Orleans. The Arts Council works in partnership with the City of New Orleans, community groups, local, state, and national governmental agencies, and other nonprofit arts organizations to meet the arts and cultural needs of the New Orleans community through a diversity of initiatives and services.


    WWNO, the NPR member station for New Orleans, serves southeast Louisiana and parts of southwest Mississippi by broadcasting balanced news, thought provoking analysis, classical music, jazz and other musical styles, intelligent entertainment, and unique local content. We broadcast on 89.9 FM, and KTLN 90.5 FM in the Houma-Thibodaux area as a public service of the University of New Orleans. All of WWNO’s programs, including its growing local news coverage, are available online at


    WWOZ 90.7 FM is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Station offering listener-supported, volunteer-programmed community radio. WWOZ covers many events live in and around the city and across the United States, and broadcasts live from the famed New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival annually. WWOZ’s mission is to be the worldwide voice, archive, and flag-bearer of New Orleans culture and musical heritage.


    Preservation Resource Center (PRC) has been preserving, restoring, and revitalizing New Orleans’ historic architecture and neighborhoods since 1974. Throughout its history, PRC has acted as an advocacy agent on a local, regional, and national scale, spreading the word about the city’s rich architectural heritage and the economic importance of preserving this heritage. PRC also takes a hands-on approach to preservation, with a history of successfully restoring over 1,400 properties. The center strengthens and revitalizes New Orleans in a way that is forward-looking and sustainable, yet sensitive to the city’s past and its heritage.


    As a nexus for the arts in New Orleans, NOMA is committed to preserving, interpreting, and enriching its collections and renowned sculpture garden; offering innovative experiences for learning and interpretation; and uniting, inspiring, and engaging diverse communities and cultures.

    The Historic New Orleans Collection

    The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to preserving the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Its holdings comprise more than one million items from more than three centuries, documenting moments both major and minor. Its four exhibition spaces–the Williams Gallery, the Louisiana History Galleries, the Boyd Cruise Gallery, and the Laura Simon Nelson Galleries for Louisiana Art–faithfully depict the multicultural stories of the region, from permanent displays exploring the evolution of Louisiana to rotating exhibitions showcasing history and fine art.

    Southern Food

    The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is a nonprofit living history organization dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of the food, drink and the related culture of the South. While based in New Orleans, the Museum examines and celebrates all the cultures that have come together through the centuries to create the South’s unique culinary heritage. The Museum is also home to the collections of the Museum of the American Cocktail, the Galerie d’Absinthe, and a demonstration kitchen.

    Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

    The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing educational opportunities to all Louisianans.

    The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ mission is to provide all Louisianans with access to and an appreciation of their own rich, shared and diverse historical, literary and cultural heritage through grant-supported outreach programs, family literacy and adult reading initiatives, teacher professional development institutes, publications, film and radio documentaries, museum exhibitions, cultural tourism, public lectures, library projects, and other public humanities programming.



    was added to your favorites.



    Share On Twitter Share On Facebook