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Customer Review

VINE VOICEon May 25, 2004
Tennessee Williams (1911 -- 1983) currently is getting a great deal of attention in Washington, D.C. The Kennedy Center is presenting three of his major dramas performed by marquis stars. The Washington Opera is presenting an operatic version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" with music by Andre Previn. But another Washington theatre, the Arena Stage, is taking a more adventurous approach. It is reviving Williams's little-known work "Orpheus Descending". It was my good fortune to see this production. It lead me to read the play and to think about it, about Tennessee Williams, and about passionate and romantic theatre.
Orpheus Descending was first presented on Broadway in 1957 where it enjoyed a brief run and only modest success. The play is a rewrite of an early Williams effort, "Battle of Angels" which was written in 1940 and poorly received. Williams was attached to Orpheus and to the effort it cost him. When the play appeared in 1957, he wrote that "[o]n the surface it was and still is the tale of a wild-spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop. But beneath that now familiar surface it is a play about unanswered questions that haunt the hearts of people and the difference between continuing to ask them, ... and the acceptance of prescribed answers that are not answers at all."
The play is a retelling of the Orpheus legend and deals, in the most elemental fashion, with the power of passion, art, and imagination to redeem life and return it to meaning. The story is set in a dry goods store in a small southern town marked, in the play, by conformity, sexual frustration, narrowness,and racism. Into the scene steps Val, a young man with a guitar,a snakeskin jacket, a past and undeniable animal and erotic energy and appeal. He gets a job in the dry goods store run by a middle-aged woman named Lady whose elderly husband is dying. Lady has a past and passions of her own and she is attracted to Val and to life as an antidote to her loveless marriage. The play describes the awakening of passion, love, and life -- and its tragic consequences for Val and Lady.
The play deals with passion, its repression and its attempted recovery. For Williams, I think it is about trying to live bravely and honsetly in a fallen world. The play is replete with lush, poetic dialogue and imagery. On the stage, the production seems in the opening sections somewhat lacking in dramatic movement, but it picks up power as the characters are developed and the play moves to its climax. Val as Orpheus, represents the force of energy and eros which buried as they are in compromise and in humdrum everydayness have the tragic power to make life anew.
I felt lucky to have the opportunity to see this play. It shows, I think, how much remains to be explored in the world of art when we look just a bit below the surface. Those not in a position to see the play themselves will still have the joy of discovery in reading this obscure work by a great romantic American dramatist and poet.
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