Wild Ride

Tennessee Williams at his juiciest, in a solidly realistic production from the Wilma.

by Cary M. Mazer

Orpheus Descending

Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Sts., through June 13, 215-546-STAGE

Orpheus Descending has so much plot, and so much of Tennessee Williams' signature images, character types and plot devices - enough for three or four Williams plays - that it's amazing the play can actually work.

There's the sadistically patriarchal Southern town; there's the Dionysian retreat on the outskirts of town that's burned down by the Klan, along with its owner, not because of the drinking and copulation that goes on within its bowers, but because the owner sold booze to blacks; there's the local slut whose sexuality can barely be contained by the town's elders; and then there's the aging, exotically foreign woman smoldering with sexuality, and a story of transgressed class boundaries, sex, betrayal, an abortion, a forced marriage.

And all this is before the play even gets started.

Add to this a pair of town gossips who act as though they were a Greek chorus, a religious fanatic with visions of Jesus' burning eyes, a black "conjure man'' whose Choctaw incantations seem to conjure up a studly drifter. Stir in the Orpheus myth, images of footless birds that sleep on the wind, and snakes that leave their shed skins behind as beacons for others of the fugitive kind. And top it off with steamy illicit sex, vengeance, murder, torture and mayhem.

With all this crammed into three dense hours, it's no wonder that the play (a revision of Williams' first professionally produced play, the 1940 Battle of Angels) sank under its own weight in its first production in 1957.

Director Blanka Zizka faces the challenges of the script by simply staging it full out, reveling in the play's overloaded plot, melodramatic twists and turns and overembellished imagery. And, to a great extent, she pulls it off.

When Peter Hall directed Vanessa Redgrave in the play a decade ago, putting it back on the theatrical map, he let the work's fevered dreamlike imagination burst out of the realistic world into something almost expressionistic.

Zizka, by contrast, keeps the play anchored in its reality. She does follow Williams' stage directions, which push the play to the edges of realism: The stage lighting (by John Hoey) shifts into the otherworldly when characters lapse into memories or fantasies; the sounds of a mandolin or of a blues guitar (sound design by Adam Wernick) waft into the room, just as the author dictates; and the choric figures at the beginning of the play address the audience directly.


Zizka leaves it to her two central actors to ignite the play's fireworks: Janis Dardaris, wonderful as Lady, and James Farmer as Xavier, a panther at rest.


But Jabe Torrance's store remains solidly realistic in Jerry Rojo's multistory set, even when walls dissolve away, or when the shop windows are illuminated by the Klansmen's fires, flashing back to events of the past. And even the new confectionery-shop annex to the store that Jabe's wife, Lady Torrance (Janis Dardaris), decorates to recreate her dead father's "wop wine gardens," described by Williams as "shadowy and poetic as some inner dimension of the play," remains solidly of this world.

Zizka leaves it to her two central actors to ignite the play's fireworks. At the very center of the play are Lady Torrance, nursing her dying husband, little knowing that he was one of the Klansmen responsible for the fire that destroyed her father's business and took his life; and Valentine Xavier (James Farmer), a blues- singing stranger in a snakeskin jacket who magically appears in town and precipitates the play's actions.

Dardaris is wonderful as Lady, as dry as kindling and just as flammable, ringing all of the role's emotional changes: taking no nonsense from the busybody neighbors, cowed by her brutal husband (David Howey), defiant in her confrontation with her old beau (Paul L. Nolan), and exultantly vindictive in her final near-triumph over her husband. And Farmer captures his character's effortless sexuality, a panther at rest.

What's missing, for me at least, is any real sexual fizz between the two of them, the sense that anything can happen just because they're standing in the same room.

There's also little sense of history between Lady and Jabe - when she learns that he was involved in her father's death, we are less shocked by the discovery as surprised that she hadn't figured this out years ago. Nor is there a real sense of danger emanating from the town's tyrannical males. Guil Fisher is sufficiently brutal as the sheriff, as are his henchmen, but not brutal enough to convey the all-encompassing destructive power of all of the town's menfolk, a power that has reduced most of the women to twittering nonentities, broken the spirit of the strongest, most rebellious women (Kate Skinner is excellent as the irrepressible town slut, as is Jayne Houdyshell as the sheriff's vision-struck wife), and destroyed any man who dared to let the women express themselves, sexually or politically.

The reality of the production keeps the play too tightly capped, and the volcanic forces - the sex, the brutality, the Orphic lyricism - do little more than rumble beneath the surface. What Zizka's production gives us instead is an opportunity to see the play on its own terms, in all its Southern Gothic melodramatic glory and with all its Tennessee Williams baroque imagery.

Hop on the roller coaster and let it take you for a ride.