It would be nice to report that an important work by Tennessee Williams was resurrected last night. During his lifetime the play, which had two major productions, was consigned to Limbo. Peter Hall's production, an attempt at plenary indulgence, I'm afraid, hasn't advanced it much beyond Purgatory.
Miscast, overdirected, exhaustingly overacted, the latest incarnation of "Orpheus Descending" is a profound disappointment.
Williams said the play was about "unanswered questions that haunt the hearts of people...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." In naming it, he strove for religious or mythological significance: "Battle of Angels" for the original 1940 version; "Orpheus Descending" 17 years later.
In both versions the boy who threatens a complacent town is lynched on Easter weekend. In the first, produced when Williams was 29, the boy is a writer with fantasies of immortality. In the later version he is a musician; unlike Orpheus, however, he cannot sing his way out of Hell.
What this suggests is that the aura of sensuality that pervades all of Williams' plays must here be tempered by a sense of the spiritual. Instead, the atmosphere is of a carnival side show. This tone is struck immediately when two old biddies deliver the detailed opening exposition. Sloane Shelton, her voice deliberately sharp and raucous, has been directed to give her narration straight to the audience, as if this were a grotesque Southern version of "Our Town."
At first I thought perhaps the intention was to stress that this is not the beautiful, languorous South of our Yankee imaginings, but the harsh, actual world of the crackers - of the rural, economically marginal white trash.
Throughout the evening, however, the acting is strident, mannered and hyperenergetic, all too often the result of actors working strenuously to achieve effects they cannot manage naturally.
This applies, alas, even to Vanessa Redgrave. I had hoped, after an absence of 12 years, that she would return in triumph, but her portrayal of Lady Torrance, the broken wife of a small-town mercantile despot trying to recapture her ability to love, is as confusing a piece of acting as I have ever seen.
Redgrave uses a thick Italian accent, as if Lady had just gotten off the boat, which is hardly the case. The Italian phrases Redgrave sprinkles on the text betray an ignorance of how foreigners cope in small town America. They assimilate. They don't make themselves more foreign, especially in a place where hatred of anything different is so open. Moreover, her quick-witted features and her lean body, invariably striking elegant poses, seem totally wrong for a woman who has languished in an unhappy marriage, a woman haunted by her knowledge that her immigrant father was murdered when her fellow townsmen set fire to the idyllic garden of her childhood.
Redgrave is, of course, an arresting figure capable of intense surges of emotion, but here they don't reflect any inner necessity, only the eagerness of an actress to dazzle.
An even graver piece of miscasting is Kevin Anderson as the boy. Anderson is "wild-spirited" in a quirky, contemporary way, as he was in "Orphans." But he is decidedly un-sexy and not very poetic, two qualities that are essential for a Williams hero.
At times he leaps into the air quite strikingly, fulfilling the bird imagery that runs through the play. At other times he seems temporarily able to accommodate the poetry Williams gives him. But his hard voice and sullen air make him seem a mere apprentice cracker, rather than a luminous contrast to the world around him.
Tammy Grimes has a certain poignance as a local madwoman who imagines herself an artist, Anne Twomey a certain power as a wild girl, though she overindulges the verbal perks of the role.
One virtue of the evening is that the voices are not amplified. As if to compensate, however, the heavy-handed background music and sound effects are overamplified.
Hall has described the play as operatic. Thus, often the lights dim and spotlit actors declaim their lines like arias. I suspect if such self-conscious direction were applied to as powerful an opera as "Cavalleria Rusticana," it would seem fake. With Williams' wounded bird of a play, the effect is even more destructive.
Tennessee Williams was a moralist poet of myth and ritual who often saw life as that classic battle between good and evil taking place in the thunder and lightning of some cataclysm of the heart.
"Orpheus Descending," which arrived at the Neil Simon Theater last night in Peter Hall's much-praised London production, with Vanessa Redgrave making her long overdue Broadway debut, is a play of just that tempestuous ilk.
The play, or rather its original version, called "Battle of Angels," was in 1940 Williams' first work to be scheduled for Broadway, but it died on the road in Boston. In a considerably revised version, by now called "Orpheus Descending," and starring Maureen Stapleton and Cliff Robertson, it made it to Broadway in 1957, but enjoyed only very moderate success.
Even the movie version, called "The Fugitive Kind," three years later, with Anna Magnani, Marlon Brando and Joanne Woodward, failed to live up to Williams' hopes or the audience's expectations.
Now, virtually 50 years after it set out on its long journey to acceptance, Sir Peter Hall has given it a fresh chance, and is making the most eloquently persuasive case yet for this play, which always stood very high among Williams' own favorites.
One of the difficulties Williams always encountered in his lifetime was the simple fact that although his plays were always written in very realistic, idiomatic language - sometimes consciously heightened to poetry - the plays themselves were never realistic.
They were veristic fantasies, full of symbolism and allegory. They were operas without music, poems without rhyme, moralities without morals.
This, at a stroke, is what Hall has realized in this mostly convincing staging of "Orpheus Descending," which emphatically has been stylized in style, with lighting by Paul Pyant that is actually given almost a solo role in the play's orchestration.
Hall has not worried too much about the play's construction, or even its literal meaning - he has thrown himself and his cast into the play's passion, extracting redeeming crucifixion-like grace from the play's ugly maelstrom of physical violence and sexual cynicism.
Williams believed that all life was divided into buyers and sellers, the used and the users, the hustled and the hustlers - and that some saints, poets and vagabonds were a fugitive mixture of both.
Perhaps both poet and saint - some have seen him as a Christ-like figure - and certainly vagabond, Val Xavier (Kevin Anderson) turns up with his guitar and beautiful snakeskin jacket, an Orpheus of uneven music, in a small Southern town in the U.S. during the rainy season.
He finds himself helping out in a dry goods store, owned by the terminally sick and interminably wicked Jabe Torrance (Brad Sullivan), and his Italian-born wife (Redgrave), frustrated, tortured and mistrustful, Lady Torrance.
The women of the town cluster around the minstrel-boy, notably the local nymphomaniac and mystic, Carol Cutrere (Anne Twomey) and the ditsily visionary wife (Tammy Grimes) of the Sheriff (Manning Redwood).
The play, placed magnificently against the shabby grandeur of Alison Chitty's monumental realization of a dry goods store, has a tragic thrust, as Val and Lady are inevitably drawn together, as she realizes the truth (known to the audience at the beginning of the play), that her husband Jabe engineered the KKK killing of her father, and that Val's situation calls for the sacrifice of death.
The hero, a small-time hustler, a one-time prisoner in a chain gang, and a no-time "gittar" player, is the archetypal Williams protagonist: "We're under a life-long sentence to solitary confinement inside our own lonely skins for as long as we live on earth." Val is even provided with his own snakeskin, which once shed can finally be inherited by a conjure-man/priest.
The pessimism of the play is profound, even though Williams' indomitable and humorous optimism keeps breaking through. But are we really all whores or clients, or both, as the chance takes us? Is death our only salvation?
This harshness - the hard-etched nastiness of Goya's "Caprichos" etchings - was always toned down in the later plays. Through experience, I presume - although whether it was experience of life or commerce, whether it was humanistic enlightenment or commercial compromise, I would hesitate to suggest.
But the grotesquerie and the almost puritanical, hair-shirted harshness of this young man's play has been seized upon by Hall and made the very engine of his production. And the motive force of his players.
Which brings me with some reluctance to Vanessa Redgrave - who in true Tennessee Williams fashion is terrible and wonderful all at once.
Her acting is atrocious - mannered in the worst grande dame English school - but her feelings for the play are oddly and unerringly accurate.
Her Italian accent is a smear of a caricature - almost thinkingly careless - and the rickety simulations of her passions nothing but a poor joke, even if her own.
I have watched this woman give some of the most transcendental performances on the contemporary stage, before that celebrated Rosalind and onwards, and I have never before seen her so enfeebled by a role.
Yet she clings in there to the crazy death. Her belief in herself and the play is such, that when it was over, after I had intellectually registered my shock, I still remembered her gawky distress and clumsy pain. And the audience loved her making scenery edible and passions tattered.
The others seem somewhat overawed by Redgrave's energy, and it is the main, if unavoidable, flaw of Hall's staging that the play finds its focus in Lady Torrance rather than Val.
As the drifter, Anderson gives a very well-calculated and laconically emotional performance, Twomey is all nicely dried-up dusty lust as Carol Cutere, Grimes has some lovely moments of radiant idiocy as the Sheriff's wife who likes to paint visions, and Sullivan is the snarling embodiment of horror-fiction evil as Jabe, the vengeful spirit on point of death.
This staging will help re-evaluate our view of "Orpheus Descending," and its place in the Williams canon. But it did not persuade me, at least, that it is a lost masterpiece.
All the same, "Orpheus Descending," as a harbinger to what was to be the playwright's future career, fascinates. It is certainly worth the occasional revival, and this particular one makes a Broadway occasion not to be missed - the subtle yet forcefully eloquent restoration of an unjustly forgotten play and the belated New York debut of an indisputably great actress.
What a splendid start to the season!
The fusion of Vanessa Redgrave and Tennessee Williams is an artistic explosion that was bound to happen, and the wonder is that we had to wait until Peter Hall's revival of ''Orpheus Descending.'' Williams and Miss Redgrave were made for each other because they are brilliant theater artists in the same way. They run at life bravely, openly, without defenses and without fear of their inevitable destruction, like great, beautiful deer bounding across a highway after dark.
You don't go to Williams and Redgrave for an elegant intellectual evening or for a show of classical technique. You go to watch what the playwright once called a world lit by lightning. At the Neil Simon Theater, where Mr. Hall's production has arrived on Broadway via the West End, the flashes of gut-deep humor and pain sear the night as Miss Redgrave takes complete, perhaps eternal possession of the role of Lady Torrance, the middle-aged proprietor of a dry-goods store somewhere in a fetid Deep South.
Lady Torrance is an archetypal Williams outcast. The lonely daughter of an immigrant Sicilian bootlegger murdered long ago by the Ku Klux Klan, she has been married unhappily for 20 years to a bigoted tyrant now riddled by cancer. The Orpheus who descends to rescue her is Val Xavier (Kevin Anderson), a guitar-toting drifter of 30 whom Williams wrote with Elvis Presley in mind. That Val and Lady will end up sharing a bed is never in question. It's how Miss Redgrave gets there, how she melts from a barren, rigid businesswoman to a radiant celebrator of the ''life in my body,'' that astonishes.
What Miss Redgrave does is fill out each moment, however tiny, with the dramatic (if sometimes funny) conflict of emotions, taking any risk she can that might allow her character to seep into every crevice of the play. Early on, when hypocritical neighbors tell Lady that they pray for her doomed husband, she responds not with stoic silence but with a mocking, spiraling laugh that establishes her contempt for her spouse even as it reveals the buried humanity that her marriage could not snuff out. Once Val appears seeking work, Miss Redgrave greets him with a barking inquisition in her guttural Italian accent, and yet again she subtly reveals the countervailing forces tugging within. As Val empties his pockets trying to find a former employer's letter of reference, Miss Redgrave's eyes scour the floor desperately, as if the stranger's each discarded scrap of paper might be a harbinger of hope.
By Act II, Lady is sitting rigidly in a chair, trying to ward off Val's sexual pull by keeping her back to him. But Miss Redgrave's glowing eyes and nervously grinning mouth are yanked as if by gravity in his direction anyway. Mr. Anderson helps bring Lady's body in line with her spirit by means of a neck massage that loosens her hair, voice and torso until finally this tall woman seems to have merged with the play's central image of liberation - a floating, legless bird that lives ''all its life on its wings in the sky.'' When Miss Redgrave then takes off her silk robe to join Val in his itinerant's bed under the shop's staircase, the nudity seems completely natural. This Lady has long since been stripped of everything, including at least 20 years of age.
The grotesque fate that Williams holds in store for his lovers thereafter, and that brings Miss Redgrave's performance to its devastating, tragic peak, is the substance not only of ''Orpheus Descending'' but of the playwright's life work as well. Lady and Val are sensitive nonconformists who, like that sweet bird and like most Williams protagonists, must be destroyed by the bullying real world as soon as they come down to earth. A two-month flop when staged by Harold Clurman on Broadway in 1957, ''Orpheus Descending'' can now be seen as a pivotal chapter in the author's canon, reverberating throughout his career. Under the title ''Battle of Angels,'' an early version of the play was Williams's first, unsuccessful attempt to storm New York in 1940. (It closed during its Boston tryout.) In 1957, ''Orpheus'' was the boundary between Williams's biggest successes and saddest theatrical travails.
That Mr. Hall and Miss Redgrave would choose to revive this sprawling, problematic piece rather than one of the preceding, established Williams classics is heroic. What's more, the director has brought his full wide-ranging imagination to bear on the text. Abandoning any pretense of realism, Mr. Hall stages the play in a hallucinatory set (by Alison Chitty) that floats against a spooky, cloud-streaked azure sky. The lighting, by Paul Pyant with Neil Peter Jampolis, mixes theatrical expressionism with Hollywood film noir; blinding car headlights frequently sweep through the general store's rain-streaked windows. Stephen Edwards's electronic score, punctuated by the upstairs cane bangings of Lady's dying husband and the howling of flesh-hungry dogs, provides ominous underscoring to expository speeches delivered directly to the audience by the town's quasi-Greek chorus of ghoulish, gossipy harpies.
The hothouse imagery fits a play set in a Southern Gothic Hades belonging to a corrupt America ''sick with neon.'' In ''Orpheus,'' characters are burned alive, babies are killed in the womb and racist mob violence always threatens to erupt. Like Miss Redgrave, Mr. Hall has the guts to embrace and explore the contradictions in Williams's play rather than to attempt to reconcile them in one rigid style or another. ''Orpheus'' is an unwieldy mix of myth, ritual (a conjure man included), social realism and bluesy poetry. Why not revel in the author's imagination instead of trying, as the original production apparently did, to domesticate it?
To pull off his balancing act, however, Mr. Hall needs a consistent level of acting that is left unfulfilled by his new New York supporting cast. One would expect American actors to do better by Williams than their London counterparts, but whether through miscasting or underrehearsing, that's not the case here. Anne Twomey, as a ghostly drug-and-sex-eviscerated Cassandra of plantations past, and Tammy Grimes, as a sheriff's wife pathetically lost in spiritual visions, bring actressy technique rather than Miss Redgrave's transparency of emotion to roles that should be affecting, not campy. Though Mr. Anderson, a much more honest actor, is a tender Val, he never emits the animalistic erotic charge of a character Williams likened to ''a fox in a chicken coop.'' With the exception of Sloane Shelton as one of the town scolds, the many evil Delta denizens are comic-book rednecks, most crucially Lady's husband (Brad Sullivan) and her former lover (Lewis Arlt).
As a result, this ''Orpheus'' is more of a triumph for Miss Redgrave than for Williams, whose script reveals its seams when in the other actors' hands. But since everything the star does is in the playwright's service, his spirit always comes through, even when passages of his play do not. Nowhere is that spirit more powerfully conveyed than when Miss Redgrave twirls about in a red and gold party dress in Act II, defiantly savoring her hard-won freedom by imitating the monkey that long ago danced to her beloved father's hand organ.
Such happiness is at most transitory in a Williams play - notably one that takes as its credo ''We're all sentenced to solitary confinement for life'' - and Miss Redgrave knows it. The intensity of her joy is so overwhelming that when the dance abruptly ends, as it must, the void in its wake is all the more unexpectedly shocking. It's as if the lights are blown out on stage, and our fellow theatergoers notwithstanding, we are plunged into Williams's solitary confinement, grief-stricken and alone.