Orpheus Descending delivers the goods you'd expect from a Tennessee Williams play: lots of tragically trashy characters expressing their feelings via long monologues and quick quips, heavy use of metaphors featuring the flora and fauna of the US South, and tons of top-shelf gossip and earnest hand-fanning.
The story goes like this: Looking to quit his ramblin' ways and find his Penelope, a hunky troubadour named Val (Charlie Thurston) descends into a hell of country life and weird trailer-park vibes. He gets a job working for Lady (Kemiyondo Coutinho), an older Italian immigrant who runs a general store owned by her dying and racist husband. Val's handsomeness and free-spirited ethos give Lady and the town a case of the vapors. Women love him; men want to kill him. Gossip, gossip, gossip; bang bang bang.
The play calls for 19 actors, but the Williams Project, which has joined Intiman's 2015 summer festival as its first-ever company-in-residence, used half as many and to great effect. The cast changes clothes onstage—sometimes even as they are speaking—swapping genders and roles and ages in ways that brought out themes that might have otherwise been buried. For instance, Grant Chapman plays the role of Sheriff Talbot, who threatens to kill Val, but he also plays Dolly Hamma, one of the town's great gossipers. These character shifts remind us of the intimate relationship between those who gossip about violence and those who commit the acts, a thought echoed by Val when he says: "Violence ain't quick always. Sometimes it's slow. Some tornadoes are slow."
The Williams Project originally designed Orpheus for a large outdoor stage in Longview, Washington, but the company made the small black-box theater at 12th Avenue Arts feel as big as a field. Characters yelled from the catwalks and ran up and down the aisles. The audience was encouraged to switch seats between acts, which afforded new perspectives on the action and also served as a clever way to combat fatigue over the course of the three-hour play.
There aren't many standout performances. The performers take a few acts to get used to their southern accents (which isn't a surprise given the young, Ivy League–heavy cast). Moreover, moments where main characters could show their stuff are bulldozed by cheese-ball melodrama, as when Val sings his feelings via Daniel Johnston's "True Love Will Find You in the End." Despite the uneven acting and a few questionable choices, the play succeeds in realizing the heat of Williams's language and the chaos that erupts when a stranger with a snakeskin jacket walks into town.