South of heaven

Orpheus Descending, by Tennessee Williams, directed by Stacey Spain is at Brüka Theatre, 99 N. Virginia Street, on July 19, 20, 25, 26, 27 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 general /$10 students and seniors. For more information, visit
Rated 3.0

Orpheus Descending

Brüka Theatre’s rendition of Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending competently carries the heavy weight of this challenging and moving story. But despite his remarkable storytelling talents, Tennessee Williams is a real bummer.

His main characters struggle in vain for freedom, coming just close enough to touch it before plunging once again into what Orpheus’ protagonist, Val Xavier, calls, “solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life.” Such a remark gives some indication of the tone of Orpheus, which in Williams’ typically overwrought fashion seems to be asking, “What’s the point in trying? Everything sucks anyway.”

The play was loosely inspired by the Greek tragedy of Orpheus, a musical genius whose wife, Eurydice, dies and descends to Hades. He goes down after her, and receives strict instructions for Eurydice’s safe return: Play a song, have her follow you, and never look back until you’re both out of the underworld. But he can’t resist temptation; he looks back anyway, sending Eurydice back to Hades forever.

Orpheus never quite received the critical attention that Williams’ better-known works did, likely because it simply tries to do too much, so it’s not clear what, exactly, it wants to be.

While those original themes—love, rescue from Hell, temptation, and the evils of looking back—exist here too, they’re played out in a ’50s-era Southern town, which also wrestles with racial and ethnic intolerance, Christian fire and brimstone, sexual repression, female oppression, and the vain struggle to reform one’s self. All that combined with a lot of melodramatic dialogue is a tall order. Here, it provides mixed results.

Val Xavier (Bradford Ka’ai’ai), the central figure, is a guitar-toting, snakeskin jacket-wearing loner who channels Elvis Presley, with irresistible sexual appeal and a dark past he tries—and fails—to live down. He breezes into town on the invitation of the sheriff’s wife, Vee Talbott (Moira Bengochea), who is prone to spiritual visions that seem to foretell how this story will turn out.

Val, like a fox in a chicken coop, arrives at the town’s dry goods store, the play’s setting, as the town gossips dish the dirt on the store’s owner, Lady Torrance (Holly Natwora). Lady is the daughter of an Italian immigrant bootlegger who was killed by the Klan for selling booze to a black man. Lady eventually married Jabe Torrance, the hateful old man who owns this store and is now dying of cancer.

Despite local floozy Carol Cutrere’s attempts to seduce Val, and despite nosy rumor-mongerers keeping watch over Lady’s behavior, the two are like moth and flame.

During her breathless Act I monologue, Cutrere (Mary Bennett) acts as a sort of Greek chorus when she says, “What on earth can you do on this earth but catch at whatever comes near you, with both your fingers, until your fingers are broken?” Val and Lady attempt to carve out their own little piece of heaven in the dry goods store, but end up with broken fingers nonetheless.

Time and again I am reminded why Ka’ai’ai and Natwora are two of the area’s busiest local actors; they’re also two of the most gifted, and are capable of embodying nearly any sort of character. They even deal effectively with their characters’ accents, which isn’t easy (especially for Natwora’s character, a Sicilian).

Then again, as someone who grew up in North Carolina and Georgia, I’m fairly intolerant of bad Southern accents, and there were several here among the minor roles.

And frankly, Williams’ already over-the-top language was frequently delivered with too much histrionics that, instead of provoking my emotions, made me roll my eyes.

Ultimately, though, I did ache for Val and Lady. Though I left the theater feeling bummed, it was mostly because I cared what happened to them, and that’s a good thing.