Orpheus Descending: Lost in a small-town underworld

Phillip C. Matthews and Meredith Larson in Orpheus Descending.
Phillip C. Matthews and Meredith Larson in Orpheus Descending.
Photo courtesy Six Elements Theatre Company

When it debuted in 1957, Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending only played for a few scant weeks on Broadway. Revivals since then haven't been much more successful. After watching Six Elements Theatre Company's current production, it's easy to see why.

It's almost like a parody of Williams, where the characters and dialogue are so overheated and rich that it threatens to bring the proceedings to a complete halt. The company struggles with this throughout, but still manages to produce an intriguing evening of theater.

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The play uses and remixes the Orpheus and Eurydice story, bringing the action to the American south in the middle of the 20th century. In a small town, Lady (Meredith Larson) is trapped in a loveless marriage with the man, unbeknownst to her, who as a klansman murdered her father. She runs the small town's general store while her husband slowly dies above.

Into this comes a musician, Val (Phillip C. Matthews), looking to turn over a new leaf from his hustling, wild days of living in New Orleans. He gets a job at the store and starts a slowly smoldering relationship with Lady.

It's pretty clear, both by the setting and tone of the play and the original story Williams uses as inspiration, that things aren't going to end well for our lovers. That trap comes in the form of the town's hard-as-nails sheriff (Skot Rieffer, whose menace is undercut somewhat by the actor's long ponytail) and a clutch of gossiping harpies whose constant gossip makes life miserable for all concerned.

The acting from the leads is solid, with the two performers finding honest spaces in the overheated script to bring out real emotion. It gets a bit more variable the further out from the center you go, with the actors playing characters too broadly to really give them the sense of entrapment and danger that they need.

Director Jenna Papke sets a good pace, however, keeping the action moving even when Williams wants to stop at every moment with another poetic turn. (When we get to a story about a fig tree and some Christmas decorations at the end, I mentally tossed my hands in the air; just get on with it.) The choice of theater also serves the company well. Open Eye's small and narrow stage works perfectly with the story, creating another character out of the underworld of the general store.


Orpheus Descending
Through January 18
Open Eye Figure Theatre
506 E. 24th St., Minneapolis
For tickets and more information, visit online.

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Open Eye Figure Theatre

506 E. 24th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55405


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