- The Washington Times - Monday, May 24, 2004

We’ve barely just begun the summer of Tennessee Williams plays here in Washington, and already it’s getting a little sticky. If this keeps up, by the time it ends, we’ll all have turned into half-potted Southern gothic eccentrics tottering around on rickety high heels or wearing too-tight T-shirts, only a drink or a vindictive relative away from the nuthouse.

A production like “Orpheus Descending,” which Molly Smith directs at Arena Stage as if wholeheartedly embracing the play’s majestic lunacy, could send you right over the edge. Mr. Williams’ 1957 play, which he labored over for 17 years, is a potboiling stew of rococo characters.

The characters in its malicious, bigoted rural town in the South are gaudily flawed, but fascinating. No detachment or minimalism here — Mr. Williams wrote them in hectic purple prose.

There’s the town kook, Carol Cutrere (Kate Goehring, who rises above her Norma Desmond makeup to create an aching portrait of vulnerability), a demented rich girl who traipses around in lingerie and a tattered coat; the local shaman, Uncle Pleasant (Frederick Strother), offering bone-shaking and Choctaw war cries for a buck; and Vee Talbott (Janice Duclos), a housewife haunted by her redneck sheriff husband and the religious hallucinations that compel her to paint pictures the likes of which probably no one had seen in the 1950s.

In the center stands Lady Torrance (Chandler Vinton), an Italian immigrant who has had all the joie de vivre sucked out of her by a marriage of convenience to Jabe (J. Fred Shiffman, who looks as if he has both feet in the grave). They operate a general store as gray and undistinguished as their days together. Bill C. Ray’s set design perfectly captures the store’s fluorescent-lit air of resignation and stasis.

Jabe, sick and mean, lies dying upstairs. Mr. Williams drew heavily from the Orpheus myths for this play, and Jabe is an underworld character, casting a pall of death over everything he touches. Lady, on the other hand, is Eurydice, languishing in the spirit world and speaking in death-rattle tones until Orpheus comes to rescue her.

The Orpheus figure is Val Xavier (Matt Bogart), a hunka-hunka burning love who sidles into town with a guitar slung over his shoulder. Elvis has entered the building. He’s every bit as pouty and snake-hipped as the King, and all the ladies react accordingly — even the pursed-lipped among them.

There is an immediate rapport and empathy between Val and Lady, who finds herself springing to life under his soulful gaze. Their love affair is inevitable and scorchy, and in case you didn’t get the sexual connotation, Lady starts wearing a dress sprigged with cherries.

Mr. Williams’ mad poetry is at its peak in “Orpheus Descending,” the language lush with fantastic images of legless birds sleeping on the wind, descriptions of the torched force of blues music, and an overall fixation on death imagery. However, by the second act, the unapologetically baroque aspects of the play slip into luridness, and “Orpheus Descending” falls into the realm of chicken-fried soap opera.

It is said that actors clamor to play Mr. Williams’ characters because of the meat of their emotions. Miss Smith has assembled a carnivorous lot, beginning with Miss Vinton as the initially bloodless Lady Torrance, who seems to take on color and vigor right before our eyes.

Miss Duclos nearly walks away with the show with her sturdily unhinged portrayal of Vee Talbott. Mr. Bogart gets kudos for hard work and earnestness as Val, but his smolder sometimes veers dangerously into Elvis-impersonator territory.

Arena’s production of “Orpheus Descending” is elevated by the robust acting and the characters, who rise above the plot’s squalor to become something ripe and distinct on their own.

**1/2

WHAT: “Orpheus Descending” by Tennessee Williams

WHERE: Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through June 27.

TICKETS: $40 to $59

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING FOUR STARS

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