City Paper is not for tourists
Ah, small-town hothouses: They’re stifling, but they produce such strange and lovely flowers. In Orpheus Descending and The Cripple of Inishmaan, two language-mad playwrights—Tennessee Williams and Martin McDonagh, risk-taking champions of the outsider working half a century and half a world apart—mourn and celebrate those blooms and the cruel climates that engender them. They’re unwieldy plays, both of them, and if the Washington productions that have just opened, at Arena Stage and the Studio Theatre, respectively, are unsatisfying here and there, they’re ultimately pretty involving. If nothing else, you’ll come away from them with an acute feeling for outsiderdom—assuming, of course, that you haven’t understood that feeling all along.
At Arena, Molly Smith’s staging of Orpheus makes the bigger impact, if only for the triumphant unity of its design scheme—and for the way it rings changes on ideas Williams employed in his more famous plays (several of which are on the program this summer at the Kennedy Center’s Tennessee Williams Explored festival). Orpheus punishes sexual transgression almost as luridly as A Streetcar Named Desire, Suddenly, Last Summer, and Sweet Bird of Youth. It’s like the last, too, in the way its all-but-extinguished heroine finds a rekindling spark in the eyes and arms of a smoldering young man—only this time both of them, not just the boy, meet grotesque fates. And there are unmistakable echoes of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Fatal disease, neurotic need, and sexual frustration are all part of the gothic mix here, though at least this time the lady gets laid—and on her own terms, too.
Desire is the opposite of death, Blanche points out in Streetcar, and Williams makes the argument again in Orpheus Descending, which—as the mythical reference of the title suggests—finds a passionate man with musical inclinations invading death’s domain to attempt the rescue of a beautiful woman. At Arena, Matt Bogart is Val Xavier, the sexy, guitar-totin’ drifter with the vaguely mystical air. (Wait, didn’t Bogart play that character last year, too, in the Signature Theatre’s 110 in the Shade? With him in the part, the thematic similarities leap out.) Chandler Vinton’s Lady Torrance is his Eurydice, a vital woman trapped in the dusty general store her evil-tempered, cancer-riddled husband (J. Fred Shiffman) owns in the nameless backwater that is the play’s setting.
Years of loveless marriage and the town’s oppressive corps of conformist-harpy housewives have all but drained the life from Lady, a notion Smith’s design team captures magnificently; the opening tableau might be a charcoal sketch, leached as it is of color. Bill C. Ray’s set, Linda Cho’s costumes, and Michael Gilliam’s lighting are all variations in gray and black, initially, so you know no good will come to those who violate the scheme: Kate Goehring’s splendidly tormented town eccentric, with her scarlet lips and her blue-smudged eyes, and Janice Duclos’ God-plagued painter, with her color-saturated canvases. And Val, in his red-licked snakeskin jacket and that muscle shirt with its tawny-claret palette: He stands out, too, and all of the women take note. The painter wants to save him, the crazy woman to bed him, but only Lady genuinely needs him, and as the two of them circle each other, testing each other’s sensitivities and sensibilities, each awakening to the awareness of another person who understands what it is to live, it’s as if Cho and Gilliam twist the hue knobs. Warm tones reappear gradually in Lady’s wardrobe; increasingly passionate washes of peach and pomegranate—and blood-red—stain the sky that looms beyond the confines of the dour, fluorescent-lit shop. The splendidly integrated design of this production is a joy—more eloquent, in fact, than any single performance.
That’s not to say that there isn’t strong work being done by the cast. Vinton and Bogart don’t ignite, precisely, although she humanizes Lady nicely and he manages a genuinely touching sense of frustration once it becomes clear that they’ll never get to inhabit the home they discover in one another. Theirs is a low-key connection, and so Val and Lady’s inevitable downfall is a small-scale tragedy, not the cataclysm it might be.
Goehring is superb as the damaged rich girl, who’s what Val might have become if he’d had more resources to squander and fewer gifts to sustain him. Like him, she feels the lure of the brink; without him, she has little reason to resist it. Shiffman is indispensably vile, a baroque and bilious presence in a show whose evils must loom large if there’s to be any resonance in the destruction of its decencies.
But—and here’s what feels like the production’s biggest failing—the town’s chorus of biddies is absurd: Smith allows Kate Kiley, Rena Cherry Brown, Linda High, and Anne Stone to make laughable, toothless caricatures of what might be genuinely horrifying characters. Such women—the sweetly vicious, implacably pleasant enforcers of picket-fence proprieties in the small-town South that Williams knew—still rule today, and their terrifying power has much to do with the surface kindness that cloaks the unutterable cruelty in their gnarled, black hearts. That’s what’s missing here: To comprehend their awful sway, you need to understand that they’re entirely earnest when they bake the cakes over which they’ll gossip about a dying man. You need to understand that they regard charity as the act of giving, if not as the impulse of love that in a whole heart informs that act. That they honestly want to make a better world, and that they’re tragically deluded about how to do it. You need to understand why their sons and husbands both love and fear them. But Smith’s housewives wear their nastiness on their grim, gray sleeves; they’d be run out of town on a rail, even in this play’s bitter little burg.
Somehow the momentum builds nonetheless, and Act 2 catches you by surprise, and at the curtain, when everything worthy has been destroyed and what little hope Williams has offered has been ground under the boots of a small-town mob, you feel the catch in your throat. The fascination of Orpheus Descending is in the way it shows death and celebrates life—life, in all its burning colors, captured in the words of a playwright who knew too well how much harsh beauty there is in hurt.
There’s little beauty to life on the island of Inishmaan—which makes the few flashes of hope Martin McDonagh offers his title character the more searing and brilliant. It’s 1934, and there aren’t many options for anyone on this barren rock in the Aran Isles, much less for Cripple Billy (Aubrey Deeker), whose twisted hand and halting gait have earned him that reductive moniker among the townspeople. More the pity, then, that he’s got a head on those uneven shoulders; an idiot wouldn’t be troubled by the endless sameness (and McDonagh, no fool himself, gives us one grinning idiot who isn’t), but Billy’s bored out of his misshapen skull.
And he’s all too painfully aware of his firm place in the village scheme: that of the eternal outsider, whom it’s perfectly acceptable to pity and to mock. So when word comes that an American filmmaker has descended on neighboring Inishmore to make a movie about picturesque Ireland and her equally picturesque people, Billy naturally enough hatches a scheme to get himself across the water.
Never mind his frail health. (He may have tuberculosis—or he may be exploiting a cough for his own ends.) And never mind his worry-prone aunties—a deliciously neurotic twosome, played with comic relish by Brigid Cleary and Rosemary Regan, who swing from anxiety over his sudden departure to pride at the eventual news that he’s landed a screen test to pique and puzzlement when no letters are forthcoming from L.A. In Billy, McDonagh has created a hero who’s enough a part of his community to have plenty of attachments—and yet enough of a loner to have no one and nothing really to lose.
The sober story of his flight frames a lighthearted meander through the eccentricities of these and other characters: Johnnypateenmike (David Marks), the buffoonish local gossipmonger who may know the truth about why Billy’s parents drowned themselves; Johnny’s ancient alcoholic of a mother (June Hansen), whom he’s been trying to kill with 120-proof kindness for 60-odd years; Helen (Susan Lynskey), the rough-and-tumble tomboy for whom Billy carries a nakedly obvious torch, and who responds with a cruelty that seems halfhearted one moment, entirely too honest the next; Helen’s empty-headed twit of a brother (Mark Jude Sullivan); Babbybobby (Tom Kearney), the brooding fisherman whose melancholy for his lost wife conceals a surprising rage.
As in The Beauty Queen of Leenane (staged at Studio back in 1999), McDonagh is trafficking in a kind of intensified Irishness here, a distillation of quirky personalities, colorful linguistics, and amusing provincialisms that can seem perilously close to stereotype. Indeed, there are moments in which elements of Inishmaan seem every bit as twee as the Hollywood portrait he has his characters mock, once they get a chance to see the film whose making causes such a stir.
That’s partly because Serge Seiden’s cast seems to be working so damn hard at Irishness; the Studio forces do solid enough work, and Deeker is reserved enough to be honestly affecting, but the play would surely seem less arch with a cast that didn’t have to fake the accents and the atmosphere. But it’s partly that nobody has much at stake here other than Billy—and despite a couple of diversionary plot twists, it’s pretty clear early on that McDonagh isn’t planning a happy ending for him. Like Williams, this playwright is interested in charting the trajectory of an outsider’s last shot at survival—and like Orpheus Descending, The Cripple of Inishmaan tracks hope as a downward-tending parabola. CP