Back in 1959, Hollywood called it The Fugitive Kind, and Marlon Brando's brooding sexuality and Anna Magnani's voluptuous realism made it a dark meditation on the nature of jealousy and violence in a small Southern town. It was as good a movie as Hollywood could produce. But Hollywood could not, would not, do justice to Tennessee Williams's brilliant Orpheus Descending. Too much realism kills the poetry of this piece; that's why Industrial Arts Theatre's daring, mythic production does such a good job of keeping Williams's poetry in motion.
The play is a retelling of the ancient Greek myth about Orpheus and Eurydice. In the original story, Orpheus is a great musician/ poet who can charm anyone or anything with his lyre. His wife, Eurydice, is the single thing he loves more than his art, and when she dies suddenly, he is so grief-stricken that he follows her to the underworld, where Hades rules the shadows of men and women. There he begs for his wife's life so eloquently that Death itself is moved. He can have her back, providing he makes the journey out of the underworld without looking back at her. He does very well, too, most of the way. But he never hears her footstep, and just as he reaches the mouth of Hell, he can't help himself--he looks back, only to see his beloved fading back into the depths.
It's a great story that has intrigued many an artist and poet since. In 1957 Williams transposed it into a modern allegory with such intelligence and delicacy that the story retains all of its profound significance. And Industrial Arts director Tom Rowan underscores the wit and humanity of the piece without sacrificing its mythic overtones. He and set designer Sean Hanson create an earthly Inferno before us, painting the sets with clouds of smoke and stylized forms suggestive of flame. The whole script is peppered with references to Hell, and many of the dark human emotions swirling through the play are hellish indeed.
But it's in his interpretation of the story that Rowan earns the most points. He doesn't hesitate to whiten one actor's face, making a kind of mask for the Cassandra-like character who tries to warn the hero away from danger (Cassandra's doom was to see and speak the truth and to never be believed). And he changes the mood of various speeches with music, lighting and earnest, almost somnabulent deliveries by the actors.
Of course, playwright Williams couldn't resist putting a little local color into his version of the tale. His Orpheus, named Val, plays the guitar and at age thirty has grown sick of the corruption of nightlife--crooked managers, booze and easy women. He decides to find a day job and recover his innocence. So he gets work in a small-town mercantile store outside of Memphis, the owner of which is dying by inches in an upstairs room. His wife, an Italian woman appropriately named Lady, runs things and puts up with her husband's scathing verbal abuse--just as she once put up with his intolerable sexual advances.
Lady's life has been a tragic one. When she was a young woman, her lover deserted her to marry a rich woman. She aborted his baby and married a monster. Her father's lovely outdoor restaurant was burned to the ground one summer by irate townsmen, and her father burned with it. At the end of the play, she learns something terrible about who was responsible, and it sends her over the edge. But before that point, Val falls in love with her. They're two outcasts joined together among the ghosts, demons and oracles of this American netherworld.
Mary Guzzy-Siegel gives her finest performance to date as the tortured Lady. Juggling an Italian accent and moving from amused cynicism to wounded love, Guzzy-Siegel discovers whole new realms of vulnerability and ancient wrath in the role. She is perfectly matched with Phillip A. Luna, who as Val exudes a languid sexuality that reflects the influence of Brando without imitating him. Williams's Val is a man in search of meaning, not sexual fulfillment--which is readily available from the local nymphet (Cassandra in disguise as a trollop named Carol). The love he finds with Lady may be expressed sexually, but we're made to understand that it is lasting--and linked inextricably to life.
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Lovely Sabra Malkinson is stunning as the nympho Carol. She can look as chagrined as a child under censure one moment and ingeniously rebellious five minutes later. Cynthia Keith offers a moving, graceful performance as the other oracle of the piece, Mrs. Talbott, a fragile, spiritual soul trapped unjustly in Hell. And most of the minor roles are carefully developed and convincing. Especially effective are Dan Wiley as the cruel, dying Jabe, Katherine Barker as his surly, vicious nurse, Saralu Diller and Erin Prestia as a pair of malicious neighbors, and John H. Shupp as the ornery local lawman.
Orpheus is most convincing as parable--most people, after all, just aren't this evil on a daily basis. And as a metaphor for the lost state embodied by Hell--where souls are severed from love, compassion, joy and tolerance--Industrial Arts' mythic sword is mightier than the flesh of Hollywood naturalism.
Orpheus Descending, through October 19 at the Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 595-3821.