“Orpheus Descending” is a play filled with desperate characters in desperate situations.
In this 1957 Southern Gothic potboiler from Tennessee Williams, a small Mississippi town is strung tight with racial and sexual tensions. When a handsome guitar player named Valentine Xavier drifts into town from New Orleans, he threatens to provide the spark that will set the whole thing off.
Southern Rep’s production of “Orpheus Descending,” presented in conjunction with the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival that kicks off later this month, runs through April 3 at the University of New Orleans’ Performing Arts Center.
Director Jef Hall-Flavin, who also serves as executive director of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, makes excellent use of the space at UNO’s Robert E. Nims Theatre, filling the room with a cast of characters who make entrances and exits from all directions, including elevated runways behind the top rows of seats on either side of the room.
The hive of activity sets the tone of the play by establishing a community bubbling over with gossip, rumor-mongering and repeated tales of violence.
Most of their stories revolve around the terminally ill Jabe Torrance (Carl Palmer) and his wife, Lady (Irene Glazos), who own a small dry goods store, where the play’s action is set. The pair got married after Lady’s father, an Italian immigrant, was killed by a gang of locals for selling bootleg liquor to the town’s black residents.
Their uneasy relationship splinters when Lady hires Val (Todd d’Amour) to work as a clerk at their store, and the mysterious, philosophizing stranger in his snakeskin jacket unintentionally arouses the ire of nearly everyone in town.
The production’s scenic design, by Michael Kramer, imagines the exterior of the dry goods store as a crumbling stone castle, perhaps to underscore the Gothic nature of the script. It’s an interesting touch, despite being at odds with the down-home setting of the play.
As Lady, Glazos deftly conveys both the strength and vulnerability of her character. She takes charge of the store in the face of her husband’s illness, showing the same resolve that was required to move on after the death of her father. But she’s also lonely, living with a lifetime of heartache and struggling to keep moving forward.
Val is more aloof, as d’Amour elects to play the cool character with a blinking, twitchy nervousness, rarely letting his guard down, even in his most confessional moments.
While Val’s job at the dry goods store offers him a reprieve from the corrupting influence of the New Orleans nightlife, his past continues to haunt him in the form of Carol Cutrere (Beth Bartley), an out-of-control local girl who recognizes him from the bars of New Orleans.
Though Carol appears throughout the play in various states of drunkenness and undress, Bartley maintains a grandiosity, delivering dramatic monologues that refuse to reveal the cracks in her wild-hearted rebelliousness.
The performances of these three characters create a sense of isolation among the outcasts of the play’s small town setting.
While much of the heat generated in the script of “Orpheus Descending” comes from Lady, Val and Carol crashing together, clinging to one another and then pushing each other violently away, in this production the physical encounters burn brighter than the emotional entanglements.
Strong supporting roles — including a pair of town gossips, Beulah and Dolly (Brenda Currin and Cammie West), a disapproving nurse (Lin Gathright) and a county sheriff who makes proclamations about who should be where after sundown (Roger Magendie) — form a united front among the townsfolk, ultimately impervious to even the wildest misfits of Tennessee Williams’ imagination.