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Orpheus Descending

by Rich See

All they say is one word...Live. Live! Live! Live!
---Carol Cutrere telling Val Xavier what the dead say.

Matt Bogart as Val Xavier, Kate Goehring as Carol Cutrere, Anne Stone as Sister Temple (background), Linda High as Eva Temple (background).  Photo by Scott Suchman.
M. Bogart, K. Goehring, with A. Stone and L. High in background
(Photo: Scott Suchman)
The fragility of difference and the violence that is often resorted to subjugating it comes alive in Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater with Tennessee Williams' disturbing tale Orpheus Descending. Originally titled Battle of Angels, Williams worked on the play, fine tuning it and redeveloping it, over a seventeen year period after its initial failed mounting ran for only twelve performances. Based upon the Greek myth of Orpheus, Williams imbued the play with several layers of Christian symbolism along with the Greek influence, as well as incorporating aspects from his own youthful experiences growing up in the South. Although many still feel the playwright tried to do too much, it is on a whole an interesting stark drama that is at times insightfully comic and continues to speak to the times that we live in. And within its frame work you see several connections to more well-known Williams' plays and how the playwright evolved themes in his head over the course of his career.

The basic story line is that Valentine Xavier (mesmerizingly portrayed by Matt Bogart) arrives in the small, rural county of Two Rivers. The town he alights at is never given a name as it represents any town, in any place, that is small and mistrustful of outsiders. Val's goal is to escape his previous life of partying and "corruption," which began when he left the bayou at fifteen. Now on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, he is looking to fit in to good society. Alas though, he is simply different -- a wild spirit -- something that intrigues, yet frightens, almost everyone in Two Rivers County except for three kindred spirits. His sudden appearance wakes up the desire to live within the vision-seeing sheriff's wife Vee Talbott (played with great aplomb by Janice Duclos), as well as the listless general drygoods story owner's wife Lady Torrance (delivered with hard-nosed cynicism by Chandler Vinton). While Two Rivers' resident "lewd vagrant" Carol Cutrere (magically played by Kate Goehring) desperately wants to save Val from making a terrible mistake. It's a compelling piece of theatre, made more compelling when you realize that rural life in the United States can still be a stifling and unwelcome place for wild spirits who are doing no one any harm.

Director Molly Smith shows an innate sense of the comedy and timing within Williams' work. The production moves at a steady and relaxed pace like a slowly developing waltz across the stage, represented most by Chandler Vinton's Lady Torrance as the barren store owner who slowly comes back to life -- both metaphorically and physically -- before being cut down by an unyielding societal demand for destruction of anything moving beyond its grasp. Bill C. Ray's simple drygoods store set is a masterpiece of old southern life, highlighted by Michael Gilliam's impressive lighting. (The skylines coming up representing day and night are really beautiful.) Linda Cho's costumes fit the bill to take us to a pre-civil rights deep south.

The rest of the cast is filled out by the Greek chorus of Beulah Binnings, Dolly Hamma, Eva Temple, and Sister Temple played respectively by Kate Kiley, Rena Cherry Brown, Lind High, and Anne Stone. Representing the societal status quo are the men of Two Rivers County -- who also make up the Klu Klux Klan-like "Mystic Crew" -- Sheriff Talbott, Jabe Torrance, Pee Wee, and Dog Hamma (Delaney Williams, J. Fred Shiffman, Bruce M. Holmes, and Paul Morella). And Frederick Strother is Uncle Pleasant, an oracle-like voice of foreboding who only Carol Cutrere is tuned into hearing.

Once you tap into the Greek and Christian symbolism of the piece, along with the South that Williams grew up in, the play becomes a fascinating look at themes that still run through our lives. Orpheus Descending is definitely a must see, especially if you are investing time in the other Tennessee Williams productions going on around town.

Orpheus Descending
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Molly Smith
with Kate Kiley, Rena Cherry Brown, Bruce M. Holmes, Paul Morella, Kate Goehring, Linda High, Anne Stone, Frederick Strother, Matt Bogart, Janice Duclos, Chandler Vinton, J. Fred Shiffman, Delaney Williams
Sound Design and Original Music: Eric Shim
Original Lyrics: Jack Cannon
Set Design: Bill C. Ray
Lighting Design: Michael Gilliam
Costume Design: Linda Cho
Speech and Vocal Consultant: Lynn Watson
Wigs: Jon Aitchison
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW
Telephone: 202-488-3300
TUE, WED, & SUN @7:30, THU - SAT @8, SAT-SUN @2; $40 - $59
Opening 05/14/04, closing 06/27/04
Reviewed by Rich See based on 05/20/04 performance
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