To Hell and Gone

Tennessee had an exceedingly bleak vision of Mississippi.
That is, playwright Tennessee Williams held a spiritually damning judgment of Mississippi, the state in which he was born. Indeed, as figured in the title of Orpheus Descending -- set in "Two River County," Mississippi, and currently receiving a powerfully brooding production on the Alley's Large Stage -- to descend to Mississippi is to return to Hell. And unlike the Greek Orpheus, once Williams' protagonist has entered the underworld, he will enjoy not even a momentary release.

Although Orpheus Descending was first produced in 1957, it is based on Williams' 1940 Battle of Angels, and the South it recalls is that of the 1930s and Williams' youth. It is a place of hypocrisy, envy, gossip, snobbery and extreme repression, and from the first moments, the racist violence of the "Mystic Krewe" (the Klan) is in the air. It is a world that snuffs out differences and slaughters rebellion, and is thus a perfect setting for Williams' perennial subject, the destruction of the spiritual and the artistic by the brutal forces of conformity and materialism. In this instance, the victims are a lonely matron and the wandering guitar-player she falls for, but in Williams' grand symbolic conception, these lovers come to represent all the spiritual, sexual and racial energies suppressed by the orthodox, white, mercantile South.

Director Michael Wilson's conception follows close on Williams', beginning with the impressive set design for the "Torrance Mercantile Store," where the action takes place. Vincent Mountain (scenic design), Howell Binkley (lighting) and Joe Pino (sound) have collaborated to create a massive, transparent, two-story structure that manages to be both claustrophobic and expansive at the same time. It establishes the cramped and spirit-binding quarters of the store itself while also suggesting the glowing, hellish skyscape and sinister, conspiratorial soundscape of all Two River County.

At its core, Orpheus is a potboiling gothic melodrama about the doomed love affair between a young troubadour, Val Xavier, and his employer, Lady Torrance, the youthful wife of the old and dying owner of the local general store. But before the principals have even come onstage, Williams has loaded his narrative with the symbolic weight of family and history. As the play opens, the town gossips tell us directly that, unknown to Lady, her husband, Jabe Torrance, was the leader of the group of Klan raiders who, years earlier, killed her "Wop bootlegger" father for the crime of "selling liquor to niggers." For Williams -- as for his classic Greek models -- the outrages of the past haunt the present, and the lovers act out their passion against a looming backdrop of social terror and corruption.

And as in most of Williams, the emotions are passionate, the action telescoped, the narrative overwrought and the language self-consciously, lushly lyrical. But there is little pretense of realism, for Williams was much more interested in an emotional and spiritual verisimilitude -- if Two River County could look directly into its own soul, this is what it would see. It's an approach to theater that, like its author, had fallen out of favor until very recently, when this play had a successful New York revival. (Perhaps Angels in America has made it safe once again for the baroque and the grandiloquent.)

Two River County is populated by the desperate, the damned, the vicious and the grotesque. The town gossips, Dolly Hamma (Shelley Williams) and Beulah Binnings (Karen MacDonald), cheerily slice and dice their neighbors while their no-count husbands, Pee Wee (Charles Sanders) and Dog (Jeffrey Bean), play pinball, pick their teeth and sharpen their knives. The rich town tramp, Carol Cutrere (Annalee Jefferies, in a haunting performance), celebrates her impending banishment from the county and makes noisy plans to go "jooking." Most foreboding of all, Uncle Pleasant (Clarence Whitmore), a rustic black/Indian "conjure man," peddles ominous charms and, at Carol's impious urging, practices his "Choctaw howls." Mississippi or Hell, we are definitely in Williamsland.

By the time Val Xavier (Christopher Devine) breaks down on the road and, looking for work, wanders into this dismal world, it's apparent that his fate is sealed. Lady Torrance (Gordana Rashovich) takes a shine to his day-dreamy conversation of flight and freedom, and to his guitar, hallowed with the names of great black musicians. She hires him and eventually pleads for his love. By then even Carol Cutrere, who also has her eye on Val, wants only to warn him of his doom -- she knows this world too well. Carol was called "Cassandra" in an early version of the play, and her Cassandra-like warnings are similarly ignored. The working out of the lovers' fate is abrupt, vicious and extraordinarily cruel, but in Two River County it is unsurprising.

Orpheus is a big, busy, grandly ambitious play, and though it can seem oddly misshapen and preposterous it is also darkly compelling and nightmarishly memorable. Similar things can be said about this production; garish and grandiose, it generally mimics Williams' style, and the performances carry out his characteristic excess with suitable abandon. Annalee Jefferies' performance is the strongest of these (and the role is a guaranteed scene stealer), and Bettye Fitzpatrick, as Vee Talbott, the dottily visionary wife of the county sheriff, also adds sharp color. But all of the supporting cast of Alley regulars -- which includes James Black, Ken Grantham, John Feltch, Marjorie Carroll, Jean Proctor and Kimberly King -- create as an ensemble a sense of small-town airlessness that catches the throat and the soul.

Less happily, at the heart of the production is an emotional hollow that needs some filling. The leads seem not quite up to the extravagant passions of the script, and slow to catch fire as the embodiments of Williams' allegory of love and anguish. Gordana Rashovich at first seems more wistful than desperate, and so businesslike throughout that her decision to seize onto Val appears almost practical rather than fateful. But she at least grows into the part over time, and there is convincing hysteria in her reaction to the discovery of Jabe's ancient treachery.

As Val, Christopher Devine has the matinee idol looks for the role, but is bereft of the vivid sexual magnetism that the script demands. His reactions are so pallid and his speech so unengaged that it is difficult to imagine Carol, let alone Lady, going for him. Parts of even his big speeches he swallows or throws away, and faced with the tyranny that is Two River County, he seems neither frightened nor angry but, well, sort of puzzled. (And as a singer/musician, alas, he makes a good shoe clerk.) Val Xavier is a difficult role -- the Mississippi-orphic "Snakeskin" version of a Greek myth -- and Devine has not yet figured out a way to surge into it.

These misgivings aside, anyone interested in American theater will want to see this production of Orpheus Descending, which should help restore Tennessee Williams to a central place in the American theatrical imagination. His grandly baroque, Southern vision has been out of fashion too long, suppressed by notions of "realism" that are the literary embodiment of the gray-skinned dragons he was always trying to slay. For him, they were the educated cousins of those more low-rent monstrosities, racial hatred and social oppression.


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