Even before “Orpheus Descending” begins, you are won over. Director Benjamin Mosse paints his production on a fantastical canvas — a cabinet of curiosities filled with gleaming silver pails, white vases, birdcages and baskets, and sad, slumped stuffed animals. Walking the line of abstraction and realism, scenic designer Lee Savage has dressed his stage in real trappings arranged so carefully, they seem to symbolize rather than duplicate a real dry goods store. This abstract reality fittingly contains some very typically Tennessee (Williams, that is) characters.
Sad, dreamy and haunted by what-ifs, these men and woman are just as abstract as the world they inhabit. The town strumpet, the neglected wife, the betrayed husband, the drifter musician, the uppity wives and the brutish sheriff are the usual suspects of small-town drama. But although these strumpets, wives, husbands, lovers and cops are skewed versions of those caricatures, they are never entirely beatified or entirely demonized. The play succeeds because it never tells its audience how to feel. “Orpheus Descending” has flawed heroes, but trusts the audience to know that they are heroes all the same.
Among William’s heroes here are guitar-toting, snakeskin-wearing Val Xavier (Jedadiah Schultz), vengeful but breakable Lady Torrance (Stefani Katarina Romanov), and floppily sexual Carol Cutrere (Mozhan Navabi). Cutrere represents the suffocation ready to overwhelm any free soul entering Two Rivers County. She is generously smeared with blue eyeshadow and decorated in black sequins, her hair wild and eyes wilder. Navabi, as Cutrere, flawlessly ushers the audience into this dirty little town, and is so riotous and gauntly beautiful that we immediately understand why the town hates her. And so it is that we immediately understand a lot about the town.
Val Xavier, stony and handsome, arrives in Lady’s store as one of the “boys who play the guitar and talk about how warm they are” — clearly unemployable. And yet he is employed there, and proceeds to enchant her with the star-scrawled names on his guitar and tales of little blue sky-colored birds who sleep on the wind and never land until they die. Like his character, Schultz is better at strange intensity and piercing stares than he is at swaggering masculinity. His wounded ferocity cruelly repels the desperate advances of Carol Cutrere, unconditionally accepts the religious visions of the sheriff’s wife, (primly and spectacularly played by Keiko Yamamoto), and finds love for an even more wounded Lady Torrance.
As the three acts move from Christmas to Valentine’s Day and finally to Easter, Lady is first gifted with Val’s arrival, then his love and finally resurrection to be followed by death. And all the while, the demanding thuds from her convalescing husband upstairs penetrate the hopeful world inside the dry goods store. In a perfect example of the play’s willingness to experiment with humor, a sweet-voiced song with the lyrics “The gods were angry with me for loving you” is played in response to a kiss interrupted by that same rapping. The end result is humor that makes the tragedy more tragic. The audience, having grown to care for Lady, cannot help but wince at these sharp interruptions. The frail fury of her vile husband, who twice staggers downstairs with violence in mind, is chillingly acted by Kevin Rich. Romanov’s Lady is nothing short of delicious — fuming and fussing and growing bolder all the while, so that her final defeat is almost permissible, because by that time she has just then become what she was meant to be. The passion of her rage and love are outshone only by her ease onstage. Never once can her audience question that she is the proprietor — she owns the set so completely that one can imagine her there now, dusting and rearranging, preparing for the next holiday.
The keenly felt criticisms of race and ethnicity add a deep sense of urgency to the play, but they are also the only point at which the play’s spell is broken. While Lady is resurrected as a self-celebratory, fruit-bearing dynamo right before she is shot down, she grew to that out of a place of utter victimization. Seeing Lady Impregnated and abandoned by a social-climbing lover who could not accept her Italian heritage, married to an abusive man, and sprinkled with racist epithets at every turn, we get the point that it has been tough to be Italian in a small Southern town. But her last words, referring to the death of an organ-grinder’s monkey her father had bought when they emigrated to the U.S., “The show is over; the monkey is dead” are much too much. Jordan Mahome is mesmerizingly blank as the Choctaw Man, summoned by Carol Cutrere to cry out with a discomforting rawness. But he arrives suddenly and intensely to do the same thing twice, and seems more an interruption than an enhancement to the plot. The fetishizing of Mahome’s character is fascinating because it is perpetrated by one of the few on his side, but it seems that that is something to tackle another day and in another play.
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