Amidst the hoopla over the Kennedy Center’s festival of plays by Tennessee Williams, Arena Stage has quietly mounted a sublime production of Williams’ seldom-seen “Orpheus Descending.” It’s a can’t-miss occasion for anyone visiting D.C. to catch “Streetcar.”
Arena’s artistic director Molly Smith calls it a “happy coincidence” that the plays are appearing concurrently. Happy indeed, since they offer an intriguing opportunity to contrast Blanche and Stanley with Lady Torrance and Val Xavier, who are, if not their forebears, then at least first cousins.
“Orpheus,” of course, occupies an important place in the Williams canon. Released in 1957, it was the product of chronic rewrites of Williams’ first professional play, the flop “Battle of Angels.” It has been criticized for, among other flaws, being weighted down by excessive layers of symbolism. But there is no such problem with Arena’s sensitive and stylized version.
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Smith’s exceedingly careful staging de-emphasizes the incendiary nature of the relationship between a handsome stranger and the repressed wife of a derelict town’s chief bully. Smith allows their dance of death to build slowly while showcasing Williams’ lyrical dialogue, the rich characters and the sordid locale that is so eloquently captured by Bill Ray’s dreary set.
She is aided by superb perfs from every cast member, especially the leads. Chandler Vinton, a newcomer to Arena, is simply mesmerizing as the suffering heroine trapped in her private hell. Totally embracing a role that is almost as rich as Blanche, she is entirely compelling. Especially enjoyable are small touches, such as the dismissive Italian flicks of her wrists, dismissing her employees’ corny entreaties.
Matt Bogart similarly brings an absorbing blend of innocence and cocky assurance to the guitar-toting visitor in his snakeskin jacket. (And what a spectacular jacket from costume designer Linda Cho, one of several carefully chosen bursts of color in an otherwise gloomy wardrobe.)
Kate Goehring is spunky and refreshing as the lewd vagrant who comes to entice Val and warn him of danger, while J. Fred Shiffman heads a strong supporting cast as the husband, the incarnation of death and evil.
If “Orpheus” manages to briefly upstage the Kennedy Center’s productions of “Streetcar,” “Cat” and “Menagerie,” it will be because Arena has boldly thrown light on a work just as deserving of first-class treatment.