POSTED Thu. Mar 10, 2016

Creative Culture

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

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