With a guitar and a smirk, Val Xavier brings a sexy, hip-swaying energy to a rigidly conservative small Southern town. After spending a night in jail, he looks for work at a store run by Lady Torrance. Val's presence jolts the community and exposes some of its dark secrets in Orpheus Descending, presented by Southern Rep at the University of New Orleans' Robert E. Nims Theatre.
First produced in 1957, this Tennessee Williams play is a reimagined version of the story of Orpheus, who traveled to the underworld to save his wife Eurydice and was told not to look back at her. Val (Todd d'Amour) says he has reformed and is looking forward. He is reminiscent of a young Elvis, and d'Amour is charming and aloof. Lady (Irene Glezos) is reluctant to hire the vagabond musician, but she takes him on as a clerk to make up for the absence of her sick husband Jabe (Carl Palmer).
Val tries to clean up his life but becomes the subject of gossip, mostly from Beulah Binnings (Brenda Currin) and Dolly Hamma (Cammie West), played with humor and wit. Their chatter is harmless compared to what is revealed about Jabe and other townsmen, who years earlier burned alive Lady's Italian immigrant father for selling liquor to a black man. Lady doesn't know the exact circumstances of her father's death, but she grapples with memories of him on a daily basis.
There's a surreal, poetic quality to the writing. Directed by Jef Hall-Flavin, the show's structure is difficult to understand at first, but eventually the plot becomes clear. Most of the play's action takes place in Lady's store, and Michael Kramer's set is a cross between a storefront and a dungeon. Racial slurs punctuate the drama, and the production would benefit from a more diverse cast. Donald Lewis, the lone black cast member, plays Uncle Pleasant, who is dressed in tribal attire, doesn't speak and has an implied magical quality.
Val's desire to change is tested by the scantily clad Carol Cutrere (Beth Bartley), a hard-drinking sexually liberated woman whose family has paid her to leave town. Bartley mixes fierceness and vulnerability to deliver the show's most lyrical monologues. Val resists Carol but is drawn to the headstrong Lady. Glezos is dynamic and delivers palpable emotions. Her performance brings the plot together and grounds the show. When she and d'Amour interact in the final scene, it's truly special.
Orpheus Descending is a complicated show, and while this production has slight missteps, it's ultimately a powerful and thought-provoking experience.