This rather relatively underperformed Tennessee Williams’ play is set in the Deep South in the 40s. Claustrophobia and prejudice smothers the small town, where the parochial poison of vicious and sadistic hatred of wops, blacks and those that just don’t conform steadily intensifies. This is a deeply unsettling play that discomforts the audience, who can only remain held captivated by some moving performances and mighty rhythm.
Imogen Stubbs plays Lady, the aging wife of a dying dry goods storeowner, whose loveless marriage and Sicilian background increasingly isolate her in this miserable town. Stubbs gives an incredible before of huge depth and range, her vulnerability and passion emerge cautiously from initial frostiness. The arrival of the outsider, the unknown musician with a shady past, has a desultrifying effect on Lady. Played by Luke Norris, this interloper Val is trying to start a new life with his guitar as a form of resurrection. His vitality and apparent liberty have a fascinating appeal to Lady. Norris’s performance is certainly strong, but Stubbs gives a transfixing portrayal that outshines the rest of the cast. She has a wonderful intensity and sensuality, as evident as it was the last time she performed at the Exchange in Private Lives.
Despite the ultimately tragic brutality of this play, it is not without amusing, indeed, absurd moments. However, the overall tone of the play is ominous, the periodic baying of chain-gang dogs and Choctaw chants are unsettling. The disgraced, promiscuous Cutrere girl (Jodie McNee) interludes throughout the play, indicating and prophesying the ostracism that besets anyone who deviates from the crushing mores of 1950s Louisiana. Orpheus Descending leaves one with the impression that in such a society, even the greatest strength of character or romance will be torn down by loathing, jealous and fear. As a modern retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus, the futility of love is stunning in this production.