REVIEW OF ORPHEUS DESCENDING
By Tennessee Williams
Santa Monica MirrorOn The Stage
An Ascendant Production
Arlene Cerda Special to the Mirror
Written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tennessee Williams, Orpheus Descending is one of the Southern playwright’s most passionate – and most difficult – tales.
Born in Columbus Mississippi, Williams wrote mostly about what he saw growing up – stories about the Southern experience. By the time he died in 1983, Williams had lent new insight into “Southern literature” as a genre, and had given the South a powerful, singular voice that can still be heard today in performances of his work.
Infused with elements of Greek myth, Orpheus Descending is set in 1957 in a mercantile store in a small Mississippi town. Overwhelmed by covert memories of its hateful past, the apathetic town awakens when a handsome stranger drifts in.
Valentine Xavier, played eloquently by Greg Vignolle, disinters that past, which some thought had long been burned and buried. In addition to exhuming the long-buried secrets, the charismatic Val also rouses passions in the town and, more specifically, in Lady Torrance – a middle-aged woman trapped in a loveless marriage and crippled by a tragic past.
The seemingly implausible connection that’s made between Xavier and Lady Torrance heats up the play and, like most passionate Williams couplings, leads inevitably to an unfortunate end.
The Pacific Resident Theatre production of Orpheus Descending exudes appropriate fervor. Directed by Elina de Santos, who recently directed Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance at PRT, the production has been skillfully mounted. Orpheus is considered one of the most difficult Williams plays to stage, because of its extended monologues and scenes, but de Santos’ iteration does not drag. He sets a perfect pace for the actors from the opening moment of the play when Beulah (Clarinda Ross), Dolly (Lisa Denke), Pee Wee (Ericjohn Scialo), and Dog (Tassos Pappas) rush onto the stage.
The production is marked by one great performance. Marilyn Fox, who plays Lady Torrance, embraces specific character choices that are not over the top but instead harmonize with the strength and passion of Williams’ story. Fox’s portrayal of a woman torn by loss and bereavement, which invites the audience to feel her pain and her need for human touch, is exquisite and convincing.
Clarinda Ross, who plays Beulah Binnings, also gives in a fine performance. Her interpretation of the town’s tittle-tattle is upbeat and serves as perfect comic relief. The acrid colors of her costume, designed by Audrey Eisner, echo the character’s mordant attitude.
Diane Hurley’s portrayal of Nurse Porter is also sharply executed. Although her stage time is minimal, her strong presence helps move the story along during crucial turning points. Another excellent performance is delivered by Alley Mills, who played Carol Cutrere. Mills, known for her role as the mother in the television series, “The Wonder Years,” played Carol with fragile ease.
The Orpheus Descending set, designed by Stephanie Kerley Shwartz, is both detailed and delicate. The environment created by props, period pieces, and paint travels past the fourth wall and into the audience area, facilitating the transition for the actors, who at times break from the world of small-town Mississippi to converse directly with the theatre-goers.
Edward Cha, who designed the lighting for the production, successfully uses specific colors to enhance particular moments in the play. Thanks to the towering wall made of wood and transparent material, created by Shwartz, that represents the front of the mercantile store, Cha is able to use this technique to shower passionate colors onto the stage.
“Orpheus Descending” is performed Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through February 29 at the Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Boulevard in Venice. Tickets are $20-$23.50 and may be purchased by contacting the box office at (310) 822-8392.