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Sunday, February 2, 2014

'Orpheus Descending' DVD: Tennessee Williams' Cougar Town

Orpheus Descending
Warner Archive's recent DVD release of the 1990 TNT Original Movie "Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending" provides the dual treats of a respectable adaptation of that 1957 play and of adding to your collection of those TNT productions.

Anyone who has ever doubted that drama is all Greek to Williams will come around when seeing the opening scenes of the chorus in the form of two small southern town gossips sitting in a '40s-era general store handily recapping the history that leads to the events that unfold (mostly in that establishment) during the following two hours.

A recap of that recap is that Lady Torrance, played by British actress Vanessa Redgrave, is the middle-aged daughter of an immigrant Italian man whom the town never held in high regard anyway and who earned himself a fatal torching of the successful wine garden that he built by the side of the town's lake. His capital offense consisted of allowing black people to patronize his establishment.

Taking advantage of Lady's vulnerability in the wake of the fire, Jabe Torrance coerces her into a loveless marriage. His being 20 years her senior, playing a role in the fire, and essentially making her a slave in her store are primary aspects of their story that add to the southern gothic vibe of their tale.

The chorus goes onto tell of Jabe's homecoming to continue his convalescence from a long-term illness. This arrival then sets the stage (of course pun intended) for the action to commence.


In typical Williams' style, the arrival of a stranger dramatically stirs up the lives of Lady (who becomes a tramp) and Jabe. The aptly named 30 year-old drifter Val Xavier, portrayed by veteran theatrical actor Kevin Anderson, plays that role.

Val's appearance on the night of Jabe's homecoming leads to Lady hiring this sultry hunk to work in the store and allowing him to sleep in a makeshift space in the back of the store. His physical baggage consists primarily of his guitar, and the emotional variety relates to resentment as to not being considered more than a southern American gigolo.

Anyone at all familiar with Williams knows that proverbial deep dark secrets are revealed, that the conflict between Lady and Val heats up in a very intimate manner, and that things do not end well. One can even state that Val is crucified.

A subplot involving the "cat" Carol Cutrere adds greatly to the drama. Her Kabuki-like white makeup, Tammy Faye Bakeresque smeared globs of mascara, and feral appearance and manner add to the sense that repression is painfully difficult for her; watching her openly lust after Val is a compelling aspect of this character.

The seeming strong adherence to Williams' awesomely crafted prose and the overall theatrical quality of the production break the rule regarding a show or film that bears the auteur's name as being dreadful. Examples include "Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital," and "Tyler Perry's" anything.

The best prose comes in the form of the awesomely poetic monologues that awesomely  convey appropriate angst. We acutely feel the pain of each character in these moments.

Further, Anderson's theatrical training and background come screaming through in his overall performance and delivery of the aforementioned powerful speeches.

Redgrave adequately conveys her character's complex emotion but falls short regarding her accent of an Italian immigrant who has lived in the south for much of her life. Her underlying tone seems more Eastern European than Italian, and the southern accents (no pun intended this time) are oddly piled on top of that  dialect.

The epilogue regarding all this is that the minor shortcomings in this production do not prevent "Orpheus" from being a terrific way to enjoy a typically great Williams' play from the comfort of your own home or retail establishment.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Orpheus" is welcome to email me; you can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.