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For Orpheus, Hell is the cold shop in Two River County

Stephanie Taylor | Interrobang | Lifestyles | August 29th, 2005

Orpheus Descending is the story of a drifter who wanders into a small southern town to leave his wild youth behind him. With only his snakeskin jacket and his acoustic guitar, Valentine Xavier entices the women and enrages the men of Two River County. None, however, are more affected by his presence than Lady Torrance, the wife of the dying mercantile owner.

Lady (Seana McKenna) reluctantly agrees to hire Val (Jonathan Goad) to help out around the store while her husband slowly dies of cancer in the apartment above them. Val's songs, anecdotes and tales of fictional birds quickly melt her frigid exterior. Despite advances from Carol Cutrere (Dana Green), the town “fallen woman” and warnings from the sheriff's visionary wife Vee (Sarah McVie), Val remains in town and forges a bond with Lady.
Throughout the play, secrets of Lady's past are revealed to Val; her Italian immigrant father died in a fire that the townspeople set to his wine orchard, and her relationship with David Cutrere that resulted in an abortion and decades of secrets and resentment. Eventually the relationship between Lady and Val encourages a fatal explosion of grim violence.

Goad, McKenna and the entire cast performed extraordinarily; a perfect example of theatre acting instead of theatre overacting. Some of the most convincing performances were those of Sheriff Talbott, played by Thom Marriott, and Jabe Torrance, played by David Francis. Both men captured the personalities of their characters and executed a precise, believable portrayal of men angry and bitter with the arrival of the handsome drifter.

There were a few elements in Orpheus whose meaning remains a mystery, such as Uncle Xx's Choctaw Cry and the flashbulb appearance of a carnival clown. For the most part however, the symbolism was so far from subtle that their intention could not be missed; the fire that destroys the mercantile mimicking the fire that destroyed Lady's father was the most glaringly obvious. What was not obvious was the connection between the action on stage and the parallels to the Greek myth of Orpheus. It was not until the end of the play that the connection started to make sense, and it was a blurred one at that.

The one thing that all the characters share is a desire to change their situation and their horrible failure to do so in each case; Lady's pregnancy, seen by her as a new chance at life, is the cause of her death; Val's choice to leave his wild past behind him and leave his drifting lifestyle leads to his death; even Carol Cutrere claims that she is promiscuous because of a failed attempt at a humanitarian mission.

Orpheus was an entertaining play, performed with great loyalty to the original story. It is nearly impossible to decipher the obscure bits and pieces of storyline, character and background, but after deciding not to dwell on the little details, the tale unraveled into a clever account of a passionate and doomed relationship.

Orpheus Descending is the fifth rewrite of one of Tennessee Williams' first plays, Battle of Angels. First presented in Boston in 1940, Battle of Angels was poorly reviewed by the critics and was pulled from the stage. Seventeen years later the script resurfaced as Orpheus Descending and became one of Williams' foundation pieces.

This is the play's first run at the Stratford Festival, but other Williams' plays have been performed to rave reviews at the Festival.

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