Making Williams Semi-Operatic


ORPHEUS DESCENDING Play by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Peter Hall. Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Kevin Anderson, Anne Twomey, Tammy Grimes. IT was a1940 debut play that foundered in Boston, reemerged briefly on Broadway in 1957, and was filmed in 1960 as ``The Fugitive Kind.'' Now Tennessee Williams's ``Orpheus Descending'' has returned to New York in what resembles a semi-operatic version.

The Anglo-American collaboration staged by Peter Hall at the Neil Simon Theatre stars Vanessa Redgrave at the head of an impressive cast. Mr. Hall orchestrates a full range of lighting and sound effects for a highly theatrical treatment of the symbol-strewn, emotionally wrought text.

``Orpheus Descending'' takes place in a small Southern town ``during the rainy season, from January to Easter Sunday.'' Into Jabe Torrance's general store drifts Val Xavier (Kevin Anderson), drawn by the prospects of a job with Lady Torrance (Miss Redgrave), whose fatally ill husband has returned home from the hospital. The personable guitar player quickly attracts the attention of the local female population and wins Lady's confidence.

Lady's lot has been a bitter one. Years before, when her newly arrived Italian father created a wine garden, local klansmen set a fire in which he perished fighting the blaze. According to local gossips, the young girl was ``bought'' by Jabe (Brad Sullivan) after being jilted by the town's most eligible bachelor. Long simmering resentments and animosities create the explosive elements Williams is preparing to detonate.

As the doomed figures in this parable of good and evil, Lady and Val conduct their clandestine affair with a growing realization of the dangers surrounding them. The tragic, sensationally brutal climax is the inevitable consequence of all that has gone before.

IN Redgrave's searching performance, Lady's attraction to the cool-headed Val reaches beyond mere desire. The harsh humor with which she dismisses the hostility surrounding her masks a deep hunger for the affection and kindness of which she has been starved. It is a remarkably true performance, matched by the candor and caution of Mr. Anderson's understated Val. Yet, when the playwright soars - as in the long speech about the tiny birds who live their lives on the wind - Anderson proves equal to the flight.

The tragedy includes several of the sharply etched incidental - sometimes comic - characters with which Williams animated his plays. They are brought vividly to life by, among others, Anne Twomey as the wildly self-indulgent Carol Cutrere; Tammy Grimes as Vee Talbot, the sheriff's wife who commits her salvationist visions to canvas; Patti Allison and Sloane Shelton as the busybodies who provide exposition and gossip; Doyle Richmond as a black conjure man; Manning Redwood as the quietly sinister Sheriff Talbott; and Lewis Arlt as the erstwhile faithless David Cutrere.

Hall and set designer Alison Chitty have created a grand-scale frame for the dry goods store cum confectionary. Stephen Edwards composed the ominous electronic score. Such effects, and especially the constant light changes by Paul Pyant and Neil Peter Jampolis, typify the Hall approach. The effects can be momentarily diverting and even stunning. But they can also be distracting. It is as if the director lacked entire faith in his text and his actors. As a result, some spectators may find ``Orpheus Descending'' more demanding than rewarding.

The limited engagement is scheduled to end Dec. 17.

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