Orpheus Descending

American Theater Comapny

Carmen Roman is the ideal lead actress for Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending, a singularly excessive play from a singularly effusive playwright. With her tightly wound black curls, oversize Italian features seemingly drawn on with Magic Marker, and a statuesque bearing that hardly restrains her girlish exuberance, she’s almost too much just standing onstage. When she comes into her own in the final hour of this three-hour performance, the effect is blistering.

Orpheus Descending, Williams’s first professionally produced full-length play, was a double flop. It lasted all of two weeks when it played in 1940 as Battle of Angels in a pre-Broadway tryout. He continued to rewrite it over the next 17 years, but when it was staged in 1957 on Broadway under its new title, it died in less than two months despite lead performances by Maureen Stapleton and Cliff Robertson. Set in provincial Mississippi, the play focuses on Lady Torrance, locked in a loveless marriage with her spiteful dying husband, Jabe. Then smoldering, taciturn blues musician Valentine Xavier walks into her general store looking for work. Both have tragic pasts. Lady’s father, an Italian immigrant, was burned alive when local firefighters wouldn’t respond to a blaze on “the dago’s” vineyard. Val was abandoned by his family as an adolescent and took up a life of womanizing and petty crime, but at almost 30 he’s vowed to give it up. When Lady hires him as a sales clerk, hoping for spiritual rebirth with a man at least ten years younger, the backwoods gossip mill goes into overdrive.

Williams builds his tragic saga with excruciating deliberation until all hell breaks loose in the third act. And that’s when Roman’s performance allows this American Theater Company revival to achieve the gothic grandeur the play needs: throughout the act, Roman keeps her character’s complicated, often contradictory emotions at a fever pitch. Lady’s delight at the prospect of escaping her barren life is juxtaposed with anguish over her squandered past, hatred of her controlling husband, terror at the townspeople’s threatened violence, and despair over the hopelessness of her position. Her treatment of Val runs the gamut from adoration to vitriolic attack and back again every few minutes. Yet through all the emotional chaos shines a cogent, painfully human character poised between salvation and damnation. Steve Key’s self-contained Val is an apt foil for Roman’s performance, and the many supporting characters keep the details clear. But she towers over everyone; nothing else seems to matter–or even exist. By the time the play’s over, Williams’s genius is manifest in all its grotesque glory.

Roman’s tour de force is all the more impressive because it comes out of nowhere: the first two acts of director Damon Kiely’s production are for the most part emotionally schematic and brusque, almost matter-of-fact. Even Roman mostly parcels out her character into distinct emotional states that rarely blend into a satisfying whole. This approach runs roughshod over Williams’s turgid lyricism, shrinking a star-crossed love to pulp fiction and turning archetypally evil southern busybodies into caricatures. The action lacks intrigue and complication, though the back wall of designer Keith Pitts’s set supplies them in spades, in a chiaroscuro assemblage of elegantly ugly junk.

Perhaps Kiely made the common directorial mistake of forgetting to reexamine the beginning of his production once he discovered the end. And perhaps, considering how powerful the end he and Roman have found, an equally powerful beginning might still be attained.

When: Through 11/6: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8:30 PM, Sun 3 PM

Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron

Price: $25-$30

Info: 773-929-1031

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johnny Knight.