Although it’s one of Tennessee Williams’ lesser-known plays, Orpheus Descending reveals much of how the author saw himself — as a misfit artist, full of hope and despair. This is a rich if ragged work, a love story between an unfettered young musician and an older woman who lost her youth at the hands of an unforgiving world. It’s also a Big Statement about art, life, and their tumultuous coexistence.
Laden as it is with Williams’ customary tonnage of symbol, poetry, and myth, the play needs loads of humanity to buoy it. In this made-for-cable production, it gets all the flotation required from Vanessa Redgrave, reprising her London and Broadway star turn as Lady Torrance. She’s a marvel as the resilient, regretful Italian who struggles against a tide of Southern spite and brutishness. Kevin Anderson is appropriately feral as Val Xavier, the Orpheus who descends into a small-town hell.