Zebra Crossing Theatre

at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

Let me put my bias on the table: I don’t get Tennessee Williams. While I appreciate his ability to create fascinating characters and put beautiful words into their mouths, I’ve always been disappointed in his skills as a dramatist. After a few good opening scenes, his plays get so overwrought that he has to pull out the unexpected pregnancy or the plunge into insanity during the last 15 minutes in order to find his way back to the light of day.

Whether I read them or see them on the stage, his plays tend to degenerate into melodrama. Some day I hope to see a production that will teach me to appreciate Williams. Unfortunately Zebra Crossing’s Orpheus Descending is not that production.

But then, I can’t imagine a successful production of this play in 1992. Its sordid twists and turns make it something of a down-and-out Falcon Crest. Written in 1957 and set in a small Louisiana town, Orpheus takes place in a tiny store run by Lady Torrance (Lee Roy Roger), an Italian immigrant’s daughter with the firm intent of surviving against all odds. Her father, not so affectionately referred to by the townspeople as “the wop,” sold whiskey to a black man, whereupon he was killed in a fire that burned his estate to the ground. His daughter, now married to the terminally cranky Jabe Torrance (Don Blair), hopes to rise from the ashes of hatred.

Into her life drifts Valentine Xavier (Todd Tesen), a wayward soul who plays guitar in clubs and runs with a rather questionable crowd. Arriving in this town, Val sees his chance to redeem himself from a life of “corruption” by getting a job in Lady’s store. Val is repeatedly tempted by the town hussy, Carol Cutrere (Sheila Myrcik), as well as threatened by Sheriff Talbot (Dale Morris) after he’s caught innocently holding the sheriff’s wife’s hands.

Lady and Val desperately want to wash themselves clean, to begin again, to be given a second chance. It only makes sense that Williams chose to superimpose this play against the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the quintessential myth of the second chance. But the world in which Lady and Val meet is so polluted with long-standing hatreds and fears that a second chance is impossible.

Orpheus might work were it played in a rather elevated style. The sudden revelations that appear in nearly every scene–among them the fact that the fire that killed Lady’s father was set by her current husband–are more akin to Greek myth than American realism. Certainly Williams was no realist, but director Marlene Zuccaro plants her production so firmly in the here and now that it never reaches the mythic level its title suggests.

Zuccaro has paid attention to the emotional moments in each scene, but more often than not these moments impede the play rather than push it forward. For example, not long after Lady has hired Val, she tells him the story of her father’s death. It’s a painful experience for her to relive and Roger’s performance is affecting, as it is throughout the show, but Val is left out of the picture. We don’t see the story’s effect on him as well as on her, and therefore this information has no discernible dramatic purpose.

This problem haunts the production. In a sense, these artists hold Williams’s text too close to their eyes, seeing the delicious details but missing the bigger picture. As a result, the actors seem curiously ungrounded, lacking clear trajectories to follow through the two-hour show.

Jeffrey Childs’s inspired lighting design offers as much support to this play as a lighting design can. Childs’s work is remarkably subtle: unless you look closely you won’t notice how cleverly he has colored the stage or how precisely he has lit the actors. Most importantly, his lights shift almost imperceptibly. Every ten minutes the stage looks entirely different, as if the lights were leading the actors along to their respective fates. Childs’s lighting calls attention to the play’s longer arcs and thereby helps create the kind of mythic overarching consciousnesss it needs.