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THEATER REVIEW

No Heroes, Only Victims in 'Orpheus'

August 16, 1996|JANA J. MONJI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With sweet words and lyre music, Orpheus charmed the rulers of Hades into releasing his beloved wife, Eurydice; his faithlessness doomed her to return to the dark kingdom. In Tennessee Williams' "Orpheus Descending," hell is a small Mississippi town that festers with hate and guilt, and the hero of this Greek tragedy is a handsome 30-year-old stranger, Val (Cameron Dye), looking to settle down from a life of smoking weed, drinking and "shacking up with strangers."

Director Simon Levy presents an unforgiving, absorbing essay on hate at the Fountain Theatre. There are no heroes--only victims, brutes and murderers.

Val is hired to work in the general store owned and run by Lady Torrance (Karen Kondazian) and her husband, Jabe (Gary Ballard). Lady barely hides her contempt for Jabe, who bought her for his bride after white supremacists burned her bootlegger father alive for selling liquor to blacks. Jabe has just come back from the hospital and remains bedridden upstairs, temporarily freeing Lady from his oppressive presence. Slowly, awkwardly, Val reluctantly brings Lady love and the promise of life. His passivity and physical beauty stir both lust and tenderness in the town's rich-girl slut (Tracy Middendorf) and the ditsy, God-fearing, good Samaritan sheriff's wife (Brenda Ballard), respectively.

*

Williams gives us the underbelly of the antebellum South, a place where racism rots out the sanity of the conscientious white women while the unrepentant are only harpies gaudily disguised in self-righteousness. Levy unflinchingly embraces this ugliness, almost allowing his talented cast to fall into caricature. Still, this Southern town isn't peopled by buffoons, but by bare husks of humanity.

As Val, Dye isn't disarmingly charming or brash. Hunkered down like a dog who expects a beating, hiding his face from the white men of the town, Dye's Val is a survivor whose only solace is his music. His only love is his guitar that bears autographs of great musicians, black and white.

And Kondazian isn't a tragic innocent beauty waiting to blossom before love. As Williams' Eurydice, Kondazian is embittered, trapped in a town that murdered her father, unable to trust anyone, including her husband. Her Lady begins the affair out of carnal neediness that happens to become love. Yet even having surrendered her heart, Kondazian keeps a distrustful hard edge that never softens into hopefulness.

Robert W. Zentis' thoughtfully detailed set, with its small cubbyhole shoe department, perfectly displayed small collection of hats and assortment of other miscellaneous goods, feels cheerfully clean and deceptively incorrupt. The visible and audible rain outside the mercantile's window and Charles Dayton's sensitive sound design movingly evoke another time and place.

This interpretation of Williams' 1957 play is both sensual and gritty, a powerful and appealing unmasking of the South and the far-reaching effects of racial animosity.

* "Orpheus Descending," Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Aug. 18, Sept. 1, 3 p.m. Ends Sept. 14. $18-$22. (213) 663-1525. Running time: 3 hours.

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