By Tennessee Williams; Directed by Erica Schmidt
Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 8.6.23
Theatre for a New Audience, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
by Regina Robbins on 7.19.23
Maggie Siff and Pico Alexander in Orpheus Descending. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
BOTTOM LINE: This is your chance to see a rarely-produced, unusually political work by a canonical American playwright, anchored by a strong central performance.
On the surface, Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending seems to fit right into the playwright’s usual wheelhouse. It follows a woman (check) living in the South (check) who wants something her culture or community tells her she cannot have (check). This territory proved to be fertile ground for Williams, whose best known works include The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.But Orpheus Descending includes elements you might not expect from his oeuvre. In fact, those very elements might explain why this play, currently running at Theatre for a New Audience, has been produced so infrequently.
The action unfolds in the early 1940s, in what people used to call a “mercantile store,” selling a wide range of goods in a rural or sparsely populated town. Neighbors are waiting to welcome the store’s owner, Jabe Torrance (Michael Cullen), back home from an extended hospital stay. They’re surprised to see Carol (Julia McDermott), a local girl given to causing trouble, hanging around the store as well, considering that her brother and sister-in-law have paid her to stay out of town. Another unexpected guest is Valentine Xavier (Pico Alexander), a stranger in a snakeskin suit carrying a guitar. For lack of any other place to sleep, he ended up in the local jail on the previous night. The sheriff’s pious and artistically inclined wife, Vee (Ana Reeder), has taken pity on the young man and brought him around to the store, hoping the proprietors might give him a job.
When the crotchety Jabe arrives, escorted by his wife, Lady (Maggie Siff), he seems unmoved by the fawning welcome he receives from the townsfolk and promptly goes upstairs to the rooms above the store, where he lives with Lady and a pair of elderly cousins (Prudence Wright Holmes and Kate Skinner). In all the hubbub, Lady doesn’t even notice Valentine, but Carol certainly does, recognizing him from the bars she frequents down in New Orleans. Val rebuffs her advances with increasing irritation, insisting he’s through with that old lifestyle. “I’m not young anymore,” he says, adding that he has just turned thirty.
It’s not Carol, but Lady with whom Val will find himself emotionally entangled. Stuck in a marriage of convenience with her much older husband, she’s something of an outsider even in her own community, having arrived in town as a child with her Italian immigrant family. She’s also still grieving a terrible series of losses she suffered as a younger woman. Her first instinct is to send Val packing, but his guileless charm wins her over, and she hires him to help out in the store. Our 20th-century Orpheus has met his Eurydice; the rest of the play will answer the question of whether he can help her escape this land of the dead.
To those who have seen other plays by Williams, this scenario will seem quite familiar. But there’s something happening in Orpheus Descending that you won’t see in Glass Menagerie or Streetcar. Carol tells Val that prior to her descent into partying and hard drinking, she was “a Christ-bitten reformer…I delivered stump speeches, wrote letters of protest, about the gradual massacre of the colored majority in the county.” The legacy of slavery is, naturally, all over Williams’ plays—white families still clinging to the blood money or the social order of the antebellum days, for example—but rarely do you find in them such a straightforward acknowledgement of what we now call white supremacy or any kind of civil rights struggle. Its appearance here isn’t an accident. Val explains to Lady that his guitar is precious because it’s been autographed by famous musicians, whom he names: Leadbelly, King Oliver, Bessie Smith. In case his feelings weren’t clear, he goes on to say, “The name Bessie Smith is written in the stars!—Jim Crow killed her.”
Of course, Val is not Black, nor is Lady—though she has been the victim of anti-immigrant violence: “Whenever I see a man in this county,” she tells Val, “I wonder whether he was one of ‘em.” The only Black man seen onstage during Orpheus Descending is a local mystic called Uncle Pleasant (Dathan B. Williams) who, for a dollar, will perform a Choctaw war-cry; this figure comes dangerously close to the dreaded “Magical Negro” trope. But Williams, who knew his limitations as a white Southerner, allows the play’s outsider characters to be not only sensitive and passionate but also anti-racist, implying that all three qualities spring from the same root. In the community that surrounds Jabe Torrance’s store, those qualities also put Lady and Val in danger.
Director Erica Schmidt (Mac Beth, Cyrano, Lucy) stages what could be played as a naturalistic drama with touches of the surreal. Amy Rubin’s set creates a feeling of claustrophobia by squeezing the front room of the store into a boxy square, then allows us to see the black walls and undressed space of the stage on either side, producing a dreamy quality. As Lady, Maggie Siff (a regular on New York's stages but best known for TV's Billions and Sons of Anarchy) also goes beyond the basic contours of her character; she makes Williams’ sometimes overwrought dialogue sound fresh and surprisingly contemporary, and elicits our sympathy even before we’ve heard the painful details of her backstory. Pico Alexander looks great in that snakeskin, but his Val leans a bit too far into the dreamy elements of the production and not enough into the complex character—free-spirited, lonely, sensual—Williams created. (His musical performances also leave something to be desired.)
Orpheus Descending doesn’t match the greatness of Williams’ best plays, but it more than justifies its existence with the character of Lady Torrance and its unusually sharp critique of American racism. Its failure to find its way into the canon says less about the play itself and more about the limits of what mainstream theatre audiences, even in New York, have been willing to accept. TFANA’s imperfect but engaging revival gives us the chance to demonstrate that we’re finally ready for what Williams tried to tell us almost seven decades ago.
(Orpheus Descending plays at Theatre for a New Audience's Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place in Brooklyn, through August 6, 2023. The running time is 2 hours 25 minutes, with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 & 7:30. Tickets are $90-$125 ($20 for students & patrons under 30) and are available at tfana.org.)
Orpheus Descending is by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Erica Schmidt. Scenic Design by Amy Rubin. Costume Design by Jennifer Moeller. Lighting Design by David Weiner. Original Music & Sound Design by Justin Ellington. Production Stage Manager is Shane Schnetzler.
The cast is Pico Alexander, Molly Kate Babos, Michael Cullen, Matt DeAngelis, Gene Gillette, Laura Heisler, Prudence Wright Holmes, Brian Keane, Julia McDermott, Ana Reeder, Maggie Siff, Kate Skinner, Fiana Tóibín, James Waterston, and Dathan B. Williams.