Orpheus Descending Theatre Review - Tennessee Williams takes on Greek Tragedy

Denise Crosby & Gale Harold in "Orpheus Descending"

Somewhere in the forgotten South, back in the not so distant past, the locals of a small country town await the arrive of one of it’s most important citizens. Jabe Torrance ( Geoffrey Wade) is returning home from the hospital after suffering from heart ills. His general dry goods store is the unlikely gathering place for busybodies Dolly Hamma ( Kelly Ebsary) and Beulah Binnings ( Sheila Shaw) to cluck about, gossiping. This is the same day that Vee Talbott ( Francesca Casale), the sheriff’s wife brings guitar-toting stranger Val Xavier ( Gale Harold) to the general store. She suggests that maybe he could find work with Lady Torrance since Jabe Torrance has taken ill.

The women are impressed by Val’s good-looks and snakeskin jacket, but it is Carol Cutrere ( Claudia Mason), the town’s most outspoken outcast and exhibitionist who claims that she has met Val before. Val rebuffs her claims, insisting that he lives on the straight and narrow and has only come looking for work. Due to the confusion of the Torrances’ arrival home, Val does not get a chance to meet Lady Torrance ( Denise Crosby) properly until later that night when he returns to the store for his guitar. It seems that being Italian has made Lady a bit of an outsider, despite how well she married. Drunk with insomnia and charmed by his little songs, Lady Torrance hires Val, a fellow outsider, to work in the store as a clerk.

(l to r) Sheila Shaw, Kelly Ebsary, Denise Crosby & Claudia Mason (rear) in "Orpheus Descending"

As the townsfolk begin to talk suspiciously about their relationship, Lady Torrance works to rebuild a confectionary in the back of the store, and Val and Lady grow closer. Questions of impropriety begin to loom and racist manfolk of this small town sit in wait for mean-spirited Jabe to say the word – ready to teach them both a lesson.

Don’t Hate the Players, Hate the Play

My first review of the year is a tough one because I am essentially at odds with the source material. Tennessee Williams' bases his southern tale of Val and Lady on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, a romantic tragedy of epic proportion. The maniacal laughter at the top of the show should have been my first clue that I would be watching a tragedy, but I pretty much hated this play because it has nothing to say to me as an audience member in a major city in the 21st century.

I was so ruffled by Orpheus Descending that I did something I have never done before: I looked up the answers. I wanted to know what I was supposed to get out of this story. Popular literary consensus states the major themes as loneliness, conformity and emotional repression. Yes, all that was in there, but where is the lesson? Without some comment on how to change these circumstances… it becomes understandable why this particular Tennessee Williams play is so rarely produced.

Because I hate to arbitrarily toss ice water on any artists’ efforts, I posed the same questions I ask myself for every show I see. Did I meet someone I’ve never met? Did I go somewhere I’ve never been? Did I learn anything? Was the show’s presentation a unique and transcendent experience? For me, the answer to the first three questions is no and the fourth gets a sorta.

Geoffrey Wade & Denise Crosby in "Orpheus Descending"

I liked director Lou Pepe’s touches of Commedia dell'arte, employing the image of “putting on a character” literally, and the masks added to the level of creepy at some nice moments. I really liked guitarist Robert E. Beckwith’s evocative steel-string strumming throughout. Denise Crosby as Lady Torrance sails from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other with the greatest of easy. A solid cast of stock character actors include Geoffrey Wade as a sickly, yet especially wicked Jabe Torrance. Unfortuantely, for me, all these bits don't quite add up to a successful production.

Forbidden Love

                                                           I wish I had better things to say about Gale Harold. I found his performance to be simply uninspired. His body language anticipates every coming line. Essentially, he does his best to keep up with Crosby, but he falls short of truly inhabiting his character. This is not to say that the character Val Xavier is without signifigant challenges. Val is the catalyst for the play, not the hero. He is a man who reacts far more than he acts. Val doesn’t want anything so I can’t actually root for him. He wants his guitar and his music, an activity that isolates him from others so he doesn’t quite fit the theme of loneliness. He’s a thief and yet he gives himself to Lady Torrance (release of her emotional repression), is he a crook or comforter? Finally, Harold’s singing and guitar playing are average at best, where character Val Xavier produces music that is supposed to be magical. This shortcoming I lay squarely at the feet of the director. If we are to believe the affect Val’s music has on Lady Torrance; his music should more than pass, his music has to be great.

Just one girl’s opinion.

Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending runs now thru February 21, 2010 @

5041 W. Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90019

Thursday, Friday & Saturday @ 8pm
Sunday @ 2pm

(800) 838-3006

Photos by Ginger Perkins



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