Tennessee Williams’ “Orpheus Descending” is not one of his most famous plays and I can see why.
It lacks the clarity of “A Streetcar Named Desire” or “The Glass Menagerie”. The main plot is powerful and effective. An attractive young drifter in a snakeskin jacket and carrying a guitar arrives in a backward, repressive town in the Deep South of the USA.
Val Xavier (Luke Norris) is a sexy but mysterious figure. He gains work in the dry goods store where Lady (Imogen Stubbs) is running the business and looking after her dying husband Jabe (Mark Lewis).
Lady is a complex character, lonely and saddened by her loveless marriage, the loss of her first love and the death of her father in an arson attack on his Wine Garden brought about by hatred because he sold liquor to blacks. Lady is a great part for Exchange favourite Imogen Stubbs and she conveys a haunting passion in a well-maintained, if sometimes difficult to follow, Italian-American accent.
Her story, her doomed love affair with Val, her attempts to recreate a Wine Garden and the final dramatic climax are credible. But surrounding this there are a number of other threads, characters and incidents that are less easy to assimilate into a whole unless you just take it as a portrait of an unhappy town.
There is an unusually large cast. The men resolve themselves into an unpleasant bunch of bigoted brutes, straight out of Mississippi Burning. The women are a mixed group. Some are townswomen who act as a kind of Greek Chorus, and two stand out, Vee Talbott (Alexandra Mathie) the visionary painter and Carol Cutrere (Jodie McNee), a strange, angry rebel and town slut.
I realise that there are references from the Orpheus myth and all kinds of resonances from Tennessee Williams’ own difficult life. Sarah Frankom’s direction gives some interesting insights but ultimately, for me, there was just too much going on, enough for about three plays! However, it is an intriguing and challenging production but be prepared to listen intently and form your own judgement.
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PIPPA MUNRO HEBBEN