There’s a reason – several, actually – why Tennessee Williams’ “Orpheus Descending” is so rarely produced. Considered a failure after a 68-performance run on Broadway in 1957, the three-act, three-hour tragedy (based on an earlier work, “Battle of Angels”) is packed with far-too much plot, symbolism and imagery, and its necessary back-story is much-too complicated. Plus, Cold War America wasn’t quite ready for a frank discussion on such hot-button topics as pre-marital sex, abortion, racism and bigotry.
Yet “Orpheus Descending” (which the playwright called an “emotional bridge between my early years and my present state of existence as a playwright”) is also blessed with Williams’ superb dialogue and passionate characters, and that’s what director Lynch Travis excels at delivering in the production now on stage at Ann Arbor’s Blackbird Theatre. And he does so in a riveting night that seems to run far closer to two hours than nearly three!
Based on the legendary Orpheus of Greek mythology and mixed with themes and character types found in Williams’ better-known works, “Orpheus” unfolds in a mercantile store in a small, unnamed Southern town in the early 1950s. Its elderly owner, Jabe Torrance (played by Marty Smith), is dying of cancer, so his much-younger wife, Lady (Emily Wilson-Tobin), hires a handsome, 30-year-old drifter, Valentine Xavier (Barton Bund), to help with the business. And help he does, as the townswomen are all aflutter over the charming, guitar-strumming stranger – much to the chagrin of Sheriff Talbot (Dan Morrison), whose wife, Vee (Linda Rabin Hammell), is among the young man’s fans. But trouble boils when Val and Lady are drawn closer – and a long-held secret is finally revealed.
For directors, though, the trouble begins with the opening prologue. Written as one, very long (and potentially extremely dull) conversation between a Greek Chorus-like pair of gossipmongers, its purpose is to provide the audience with all of the past history it needs to know to follow the plot. Travis wisely keeps the pace brisk and the actors focused, as Amy Griffith and Vanessa Renee Sawson have great, giddy fun with their roles – both here and throughout their handful of appearances.
In fact, Travis’ overall pacing and casting choices serve the show quite well.
Supporting actors are generally fine, with Courtney Myers (Carol Cutrere), Sarah Burcon (Nurse Porter), Jamie Weeder (Eva Temple) and Connie Cowper (Sister Temple) among the notables. (There are 16 actors in the cast.)
And Hammell continues to dominate the stage with yet another idiosyncratic character. (Two scenes with Bund were almost flawless on opening night.)
But Bund and Wilson-Tobin carry the show, and while they don’t sizzle and steam up the stage as the ill-fated lovers, both offer nicely nuanced and heart-felt performances. (Bund’s Louisiana accent is especially impressive, which he maintains throughout.)
The production’s technical elements are among the best efforts yet at the Blackbird. Dave Early’s set – right down to the wood floor – is excellent, which Beth Duey dressed quite well (except for the plastic Clorox bottle, which wasn’t manufactured until 1960).
Problems with the show are mostly nit-picky. Lady should be noticeably (but not significantly) older than Val, while the actual age difference between Eva and Sister is too great. (They look like mother and daughter rather than siblings.) The sheriff’s henchmen aren’t the least bit threatening, and the tragic ending – with the dramatic action taking place off stage and out of sight – isn’t the least bit satisfying.
Blackbird Theatre, 1600 Pauline, Ann Arbor. Friday-Sunday through June 27. $20. 734-332-3848. http://www.blackbirdtheatre.org