Orpheus Descending
Director: Peter Hall. Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Kevin Anderson, Brad Sullivan, Anne Twomey, Manning Redwood, Miriam Margolyes, Sloane Shelton, Patti Allison, Doyle Richmond, Marcia Lewis. Screenplay: Peter Hall (based on the play by Tennessee Williams).

A startlingly brave and bizarre adaptation of one of Williams' most complicated plays, Peter Hall's Orpheus Descending would certainly merit the tag "original" if it were not rendered so exactly along the baroquely stylized lines laid out by Williams in the text of his play. That the adaptation shows such devotion to Williams' vision is, for once, not an example of slavish devotion to a preceding text, mostly because the author's concept of Orpheus Descending was so decadent and unruly—paganishly violent, unabashedly sexual, and deliberately "unrealistic"—that a telefilm director would be easily pardoned for honing the material into more governable, standard-narrative shape. Instead, everyone involved contributes to the balancing act of reality and exaggeration, creating in the process a universe impossible to accept as literal but so powerful in its emotions that we cannot deny its aspect of truth.

Vanessa Redgrave stars as Lady Torrance, the middle-aged proprietor of her husband's mercantile store in the Deep South. Jabe, her husband, played by Brad Sullivan, is laid in a bed upstairs from the store, every hour further consumed by a cancer almost as malignant as Jabe's own temperament. Lady doesn't quite know if she grieves more because her husband is going to die or because he is taking so damn long to do it; for months she has endured his raging invective, everything from criticisms of her management of the store to accusations that she is trying to kill him. It doesn't help that a gaggle of neighborhood women, some related to Jabe but others merely gossips and snoopers, busybody around her store whispering about his condition and judging her own behavior as the wife of a dying man.

Lady has gone so long without luck or love that initially she doesn't even recognize a good hand when she's dealt one. The card she's dealt is Valentine Xavier (Kevin Anderson), a guitar-toting drifter whose car breaks down outside town and who comes asking for a job in her store. Val is somewhere between a king of hearts and a jack of spades, immediately attracting the attention of all the women in the community but so reticent and cool to their attentions that no one can make sense of him. The woman who tries the hardest is Carol Cutrere (Anne Twomey), the local "fallen woman," who lets on she knows something about his past before initiating her attempted seduction. The peril of a small town like this one, though, is that even when Val refuses Carol's advances, the mere fact of their interaction is enough to make him suspicious. It isn't long before the men of the community, including a sheriff who looks and acts like a bull mastiff, have locked their eyes square onto Val's every move.

Given those circumstances, it's probably a blessing that Val has set himself in the employ of Lady Torrance, who is accustomed to dubious glances and thinks nothing of harboring a smoldering ember like Val once he has proven on her own terms that she can trust him. At least, that seems to be Lady's perspective; it is only after about an hour that we begin to understand how far-reaching Lady's dreams are, how thoroughly thwarted her passions have been, and how cleverly she can plan for an escape route out of the hell she inhabits.

"Hell" is employed here as more than melodrama, since the play and movie—using, as the title implies, the myth of Orpheus as one of its chief inspirations—overtly stages its developing conflicts as a sort of mythopoeaic parable. Michael Fash's camerawork and Tom H. John's arresting set design both contribute to a certain infernal atmosphere, and the threat of fire appears everywhere in the narrative, from the story of the burning alive of Lady's immigrant father to the smell of cigarettes that proves a give-away of Val's presence at moments he would probably prefer to go undetected.

Anderson, who a year later made Sleeping with the Enemy and recently starred in the critically-endorsed TV drama Nothing Sacred, does a fine job navigating the tricky course Williams designs for this character, namely of achieving an incindiary effect on almost every character who passes through the Torrance Mercantile Store but without actually seeming to throw any sparks. Val attests over and over that he wants to grow out of a boisterous and feckless past, that he wants to "play it cool," and Anderson lends sincerity to that project of lying low without erasing the sensual buzz around a man to whom Lady shouts, "Everything you do is suggestive!"

The rest of the cast almost without exception create characters that draw on real emotions but still adhere to the stylized ethic of the project; Orpheus Descending seems as much inspired by classic horror outings like Carnival of Souls or even The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as it is by A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Whatever the facility of their performances, however, one has to acknowledge that with Vanessa Redgrave in the cast, the lion's share of a viewer's attention will not be focused on the supporting cast. Redgrave exaggerates all of her physical movements and slathers on a sometimes-incomprehensible "Italian" accent that, while occasionally too weird to understand, achieves the dimension of theatricality and artifice that Williams so clearly intends for this character.

Even through all of this fussy detailing, though, Redgrave delivers a moving performance. As in Julia, Howards End, or many of her other signature roles, her Lady comes across as a devilish wick of a woman, a candleflame that darts and sears in shocking fits of energy but also lingers forever on the very brink of extinguishment. Every wringing of her hand or tripping of her tongue in this performance is a grasp for the life that Jabe's illness, her brutal childhood, and the town circle of vultures are forever threatening to seize from her. Lady Torrance is the sort of role (particularly since Williams wrote it) that one imagines Anna Magnani playing, and in fact she did; Magnani inhabited the same role in Sidney Lumet's The Fugitive Kind, his 1959 adaptation of the same Williams play.

Like the play itself, Redgrave is occasionally a bit too histrionic for her own good, and by the end of Orpheus Descending, Williams has characteristically packed in so much physical and emotional trauma that the film threatens to buckle under the weight of its own malignancy. Hall's straight-on confrontation with the dark material, however, remains a cardinal virtue both in directing and adapting the script of Orpheus Descending—a play which, after all, describes the sad fate of men and women who look too long on visions of what they'd like to be, never noticing what sad sacks they have in fact become. Grade: B+

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