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Like a priest converting blood into wine, the true artist transmutes the banal pain of ordinary experience into a divine language. Tennessee Williams' rare gift is his ability to imbue the often cruel and grotesque texture of Southern life with a redeeming beauty.
In Orpheus Descending, the playwright attempts to lay bare the cancerous hatreds lurking beneath the veneer of Southern gentility.
The mythological Orpheus committed the grievous sin of loving too much. In the face of death and disbelief, the great musician's undying affection for his muse proved to be her demise. Williams' modern incarnation of the doomed Eurydice is Lady Torrence (played by Melanie Martinez), the proud daughter of a "wop bootlegger who burned to death in his orchard."
Trapped in a destructive marriage to the sadistic, decrepit Jabe Torrence (Sam Baum), she spends sleepless nights "coupled with death." Pledged to live together in sickness and mutual hate, they refuse to lie to one another, yet they refuse to acknowledge the truth.
The deadly, soporific rhythm of their lives is suddenly disrupted by the arrival of a drifter named Val Xavier (Aaron Caughey). The young musician conjures up the spirits of a seemingly irretrievable past full of terrifying secrets. His every movement is "suggestive," in Lady's words, and his raw sensuality proves irresistible to her. In Williams' world, acts of love are both sacred and shameful. And as repressed sexual desire brings Val and Lady together, the threads of the family's ignominious past are slowly unraveled.
Caughey gives one of the play's best performances as the threateningly sensual Val. He captures the character's odd brand of innocence as well as the raw sexuality which makes him so appealing to Lady. Melanie Martinez gives a subtle and moving performance, embodying the queer mixture of honesty and artifice that constitute Lady Torrence's character. Somewhat less successful is Liz Amberg as Carol Cutrere, a woman whose shameful past and rebellious nature both frighten and fascinate the towns "respectful" citizens. The actress' performance doesn't always have the power to sustain the scenes where Carol acts as both a foil and a female counterpart to Val.
A cast of seemingly peripheral minor characters contribute to the play's macabre atmosphere. Sarah Burt-Kinderman gives a particularly strong performance as Vee Talbott, the local madwoman or divine visionary, depending on one's frame of mind. The town gossips Dolly Hamma and Beulah Binnings (played by Charlotte Nicklas and Sarah Lohrius) are the eerie creations of a society in which people live in "solitary confinement," fearing their own sexuality, ashamed of their very humanity.
At the play's climax, Jabe, in a jealous rage, tries to kill Val and inadvertently shoots his wife. Making what Flannery O'Connor calls "a good case for distortion," the scene risks appearing ridiculously melodramatic to modern viewers.
Fortunately, Martinez's fervent performance, (in spite of a rather uneven Southern accent) carries the scene. As both Lady's dying husband and her ex-lover, Sam Baum does well with the difficult but pivotal role of the old man.
It was also an interesting touch to have the same actor play the two men who, whether out of cruelty or moral complacency, end up destroying the life of the woman they once professed to love.
Williams' brilliance lies in his finely tuned understanding of a society that seeks to crush what is different, lest the shades of its own guilty past reappear to haunt its members. Impropriety is a crime punishable by death. Val is no innocent, and Caughey's nuanced performance acknowledges the complexity of the character. But he is a martyr. Sheriff Talbott and his men make for an odd band of Maenads, but after all, this is Tennessee Williams.
Orpheus Descending concludes at the moment of impending violence. Having dared to cast a final glance at the face of his beloved Lady, Val disappears into the night with the Sheriff's men in pursuit. Having condemned his lover to death, the young drifter is forced to resume the life he longed to leave behind. Though the mythical Orpheus "made Hell grant what love did seek," he could not escape the spectre of death. We are allowed the hope, however futile, that Tennessee Williams' rebel musician might.
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