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Orpheus Descending

The play clearly was close to Williams' heart: It had its genesis in the early play "Battle of Angels," and was rewritten over a period of decades.

With:
Cast: Karen Kondazian (Lady Torrance), Cameron Dye (Val Xavier), Tracy Middendorf (Carol Cutrere), Brenda Ballard (Vee Talbott), Gary Ballard (Jabe Torrance), Veronica Bach (Dolly Hamma), Jacqui Hyland (Beulah Binnings), Boe Glasschild (Uncle Pleasant), Rudy Young (Sheriff Talbott), Teresa Cook (Nurse), Andrew Craig (Dog Hamma). Arguing for its status as a major play in the Tennessee Williams canon -- as Peter Hall's 1989 Broadway revival with Vanessa Redgrave did to mixed results -- the Fountain Theater has revived 1957's "Orpheus Descending" as the centerpiece in its summer Williams festival. But despite a meticulous production and a powerful performance in a key role, the case remains unmade for this odd and ultimately unsatisfying play. New scrutiny seems to be more likely to reaffirm that obscurity does not fall by happenstance on the works of acclaimed playwrights.

The play clearly was close to Williams’ heart: It had its genesis in the early play “Battle of Angels,” and was rewritten over a period of decades.

The titular figure is the guitar-playing stud Val Xavier (Cameron Dye), who drifts into a Mississippi town one day and sends a chorus of females into a frenzy of frustration.

Town bad-girl Carol Cutrere (Tracy Middendorf), a sort of Cassandra with bad eye makeup, flings herself at him in increasing desperation; she’s being run out of town for her wayward ways, and urges Val to join her in flight before her visions of his doom come true.

Under Simon Levy’s directorial hand, Middendorf rather overdoes the floozy poetics of this borderline-camp character; a little less vamp and a little more thoughtfulness might rein in the performance.

Dye’s Val also veers too often toward the obvious. If slouching and brooding were Olympic sports, he’d take the gold here. His work improves as the evening — long at three acts and three hours — wears on, and his interaction with the town’s other visionary lady, Vee Talbott (Brenda Ballard), has particular gracefulness. Ballard also is effective as the sweet sheriff’s wife who’s blinded by a vision of Christ risen, and whose inchoate yearning for Val will lead to his demise.

But the play’s most engaging character — and not incidentally, the one least inclined to flights of symbolic fancy — is Lady Torrance (Karen Kondazian), the wife of dying Jabe Torrance, the proprietor of the general store where the action takes place.

The earthy, big-hearted but embittered daughter of an Italian burned to death by town thugs in his orchard, Lady is a fewsteps away from “The Rose Tattoo’s” Serafina della Rosa (both were roles created by Maureen Stapleton, and both went to Anna Magnani, the inspiration for Serafina, on film).

Kondazian reveals all the sad layers of this spirited figure — her burning anger toward her father’s unknown killers and the cynicism born of it, the desperate loneliness of a loveless marriage and the unacknowledged passions Val’s presence inevitably ignite.

When Kondazian’s Lady is onstage, the play has an emotional hold that it otherwise too often lacks.

A finely wrought, naturalistic set by Robert W. Zentis, ace lighting by Ken Booth, and Jeanne Reith Waterman’s comically apt costumes only serve to remind that this play isn’t quite of the real world; a more stylized approach by director Levy might create a more palatable mood for its mixture of high-flown poetry and realistic drama.

Half of the play is a series of lyrical musings on the freedom of flight vs. the corruptions of the world, the beautiful and terrible power of sexual love and other sundry Williams obsessions; the other half is a comedy-drama about small-town cruelties.

In this play, Williams didn’t quite succeed in fusing the two smoothly.

Orpheus Descending

Production: Orpheus Descending (Fountain Theater; 99 seats; $ 22 top) The Fountain Theater presents a play in three acts (two intermissions) by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Simon Levy.

Crew: Set, Robert W. Zentis; costumes, Jeanne Reith Waterman; lighting, Ken Booth; sound, Charles Dayton; original music, Cameron Dye; fight director, Marty Pistone; production stage manager, Jesica Korbman; associate producer, Yvonne Bennett.

With: Cast: Karen Kondazian (Lady Torrance), Cameron Dye (Val Xavier), Tracy Middendorf (Carol Cutrere), Brenda Ballard (Vee Talbott), Gary Ballard (Jabe Torrance), Veronica Bach (Dolly Hamma), Jacqui Hyland (Beulah Binnings), Boe Glasschild (Uncle Pleasant), Rudy Young (Sheriff Talbott), Teresa Cook (Nurse), Andrew Craig (Dog Hamma). Arguing for its status as a major play in the Tennessee Williams canon -- as Peter Hall's 1989 Broadway revival with Vanessa Redgrave did to mixed results -- the Fountain Theater has revived 1957's "Orpheus Descending" as the centerpiece in its summer Williams festival. But despite a meticulous production and a powerful performance in a key role, the case remains unmade for this odd and ultimately unsatisfying play. New scrutiny seems to be more likely to reaffirm that obscurity does not fall by happenstance on the works of acclaimed playwrights.

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