ORLANDO — There is no doubt about it: when it comes to suffering, Lady Torrance is in a class by herself.
An Italian immigrant living in the Deep South in the 1950s, Lady is surrounded by small-minded, gossiping bigots who treat her like an intruder, an unwelcome outsider. She’s married to Jack, a hideous man she doesn’t love who is as nasty as any of the locals, and Lady even admits that when he touches her, he makes her “skin crawl.” She operates Jack’s local store, and her aging husband is dying. He mostly lies in bed all day, banging on the pipes so his wife will wait on him hand and foot, and she has terrible trouble sleeping at night. Lady is lonely and has a miserable existence.
Then one day her outlook starts to change when a handsome young guitar player named Val wanders into town. His car has broken down, he’s out of money, and has nowhere to go. He appeals to Lady to let him do odd jobs around the grocery store so he can save up cash to move on, but Lady decides to not only hire him but give him a room in the back of the store to live in. Suddenly she’s smiling again. The quiet, soft spoken Val has a powerful impact on her. But this is the South, in the 1950s, and Lady is a married woman. Why does she run the risk of allowing her passions to become enflamed when it could cause her to lose everything?
When Tennessee Williams wrote his play “Orpheus Descending,” and it premiered on Broadway in 1957, a lot of the reviews were pretty hostile. It was written off as a melodramatic mess better suited for a soap opera than a major playwright who had turned in acclaimed works like “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
When Dark Side of Saturn production company decided to revive “Orpheus Descending” in a production now at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, the producer, Nick Baniewich, acknowledged that this tends to be one of Williams’ least revived plays.
Seen today, there’s no question that the play, inspired as a modern retelling of the ancient Greek Orpheus legend, is wildly melodramatic. Williams tosses in subjects that include racism, domestic violence, murder, and insanity. The small town is portrayed as nothing short of a living hell on earth. Hypocritical local women go to church, then gather at the grocery store and gossip viciously. The sheriff is violently abusive toward his church-going wife, and equally hostile toward anyone who crosses him. It looks like a place that could drive anyone insane.
But watching it today, there’s no question that “Orpheus” has aged remarkable well. Melodramatic, yes, but also quite powerful to watch. Williams had a unique talent for sending poison pen letters to his home region in the Deep South, casting an ugly mirror to the ways of the Jim Crow era in the 1950s. But what works even better is that, once you’ve decided this small town is not the kind of place you’d ever want to visit — let alone live there — you get heavily swept up in the story of the two people you almost instantly start to like: Lady and Val.
Lady, played in a riveting performance by Leesa Castaneda, is strong willed, outspoken, and has built up a tough exterior after years of enduring the insults and shabby treatment of the locals, and also her husband. When Val, played so beautifully by Andy Matchett, returns to the store late at night and Val thinks he might be a robber, she’s tough as nails in letting him know she’ll fight to protect what’s hers.
What she likely doesn’t expect is how the easygoing guitar player, who insists he’s looking for a chance to change his ways and take his life in a new direction, will melt away that rock-solid exterior she’s built up, and rouse within Lady a passion that she hasn’t allowed herself the luxury of feeling in a very long time. And just as Val can recognize that the town is filled with folks who wear their nastiness on their sleeve, he spots the kindness behind Lady’s often feisty demeanor.
These are not two solidly virtuous characters. Both Lady and Val have plenty of flaws. But as two outsiders in a town overrun by the worst that society can offer, it’s not long before you start rooting for Lady and Val. The Dark Side production is set in that grocery store, and right behind the front desk and cash register is a black curtain that leads to the spare room Val is given. Every time Val disappears behind that black curtain and we see the longing in Lady’s eyes, the burning desire to pull that curtain aside and follow him in there, it tugs at your emotions. You can see the way Val chips away at her feelings of loneliness, heart ache and despair. You almost want to jump on stage and say, Come on, Lady, go in there — I would!
But you also know that in their own way, the local bigots who sneeringly call her “Dago” are watching.
By the explosive ending, it’s hard to see what the critics were thinking back in the 1950s. Williams had a flair for tragedy, and here the author almost seems to be saying If the Deep South doesn’t want you to be happy, don’t get your hopes up.
And if Williams uses melodrama to advance the story, he certainly doesn’t make it boring, and he allows in some beautifully quiet moments between Lady and Val in that dinky little store — most importantly, when she shares her dreams of turning the back of the store into an entertainment club that will become the envy of the county. That’s true even though it’s so obvious her real dream is simply to run as far away from there as possible with Val at her side. The director, Tara Rewis, brings out all the simmering emotions in her cast — and in the audience.
“Orpheus” has a large cast, and if Castaneda and Matchett do a masterful job in their roles, they get plenty of help, including from Vera Varlamov as Carol, the “loose” woman who has been run out of the county for the grave sin of lending her voice to the Civil Rights movement; Karen Edwards-Hill as Vee Talbot, a highly religious woman who suffers abuse from her husband, the local sheriff; and Jay Glass as the sheriff who seems to want to make Bull Connor come off as a bleeding heart leftie.
Baniewich was right — this is a play well worth rediscovering. The decades since the 1950s have only made it more potent.
It’s also worth noting that “Orpheus Descending” is being produced at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater at the same time as “To Kill a Mockingbird”, another play set in the Deep South and dealing with racial tension. Consider seeing them both over an upcoming weekend; they create a powerful look back at a sorry era in recent American history.
“Orpheus Descending” runs through Feb. 8 at the theater at 812 E. Rollins St. Show times are 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. For tickets and reservations, check the company’s website.
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