Today I am waiting for a man to come and tear up the basement floor of my home, and replace a rusted-out 109 year-old drain pipe. I am fairly certain this repairman will not be the tall, dark and handsome Valentine Xavier of the current Orpheus Descending. But there are other parallels between the latest production of Tennessee Williams' near-great love story and my household travails that may be worth examining.
In the play, when handsome, soulful Valentine (Tyler Vickers) comes to lay some pipe for Lady Torrance (the fantastic Donna Parrone), he actually appears somewhat over-qualified for the task. For, unlike the greatest settings of Williams (or my basement), the household of Lady Torrance seems to drain perfectly well. The dark Southern Gothic overtones that accrete in plays like The Glass Menagerie, Suddenly Last Summer, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire or Summer and Smoke are cleanly drained away in this play, primarily by the satirical interpretations of key supporting players under the direction of Carolyn Hood. And Ms. Parrone is more than passionate enough to do battle with dark elements that remain in her home in Two Rivers County, Mississippi. It all serves to make the usual Williams poignancy rather like the show's mythical mascot: a bird that can never come to rest on this Earth.
About Ms. Parrone: she dances, she spits fire, and pleads and swoons with magnificent panache. It may be the best performance of the year. But, as directed, her chief adversaries (the estimable Kim Furlow and Julie Venegoni) give us very little reason to despise the dark side of the South the way the playwright did. Their town ladies come out just a half-step above the household maids of 1920s Broadway who picked up the phone to tell the caller (and the audience) that the mistress was not taking any visitors, what with that terrible business in the papers and all. At least we can applaud their unbending loyalty to their director. Williams' better-known sources of repression, Mrs. Wingfield, Mrs. Venable, Brick, Blanche or Alma, will always be stopped-up like rusted sewer pipes. Here, information (and passion) flows out all too smoothly through the pipeline of light-comedy. But the times they are a-changin', and my own basement repairman will certainly be using lightweight PVC to replace 19th century cast iron, prone as it was to decomposition.
And yet, and yet. William Burch is horrifyingly steeped in the Gothic idiom as Lady's dying husband, and Ruth Heyman is phenomenal as the sheriff's wife, whose supernatural blind spells recur whenever she's passing Valentine's workplace. Julie Layton (as Carol Cutrere) and Norman McGowan (Uncle Pleasant) are terrific as social outcasts. Jenn Bock is excellent as the all-seeing nurse, and Rosemary Christian and Dorothy Davis (as the Temple sisters) are great as enforcers of society's code. So perhaps the ultimate blame for the frequent listlessness of Orpheus Descending goes to Mr. Williams himself: the tragic outsiders are too evenly matched against the smug insiders in this petty fiefdom. It drains the drama, and the final terror (and most of the tension) seem patched onto a doomed romance.
Still, I hope there are plenty of people who like to puzzle over theater's near-misses, both current and historic. And any chance to see Ms. Parrone take on a great dramatic role is a bargain at twice the price.
But there's the doorbell, and my gentleman caller.
Through December 2, 2006 at the ArtLoft, 1529 Washington Ave. downtown. For information, www.HotCityTheatre.org or (314) 289-4060.
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