ORPHEUS DESCENDING by Tennessee Williams, directed by Miles Potter, with Seana McKenna and Jonathan Goad. Presented by Mirvish Productions at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King West). Previews through Saturday (January 6), opens Sunday (January 7) and runs to February 11. $26-$85. See Opening, page 56. 416-872-1212. Rating: NNNNN
Sometimes sensuality has a surprising innocence and purity.
Take Val Xavier, the drifter who sparks the action in Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending. With his smooth talk and snakeskin jacket, he charms the women of a small Southern town while riling their men. Yet in many ways he's an ingenuous figure, unaware of his power.
Two years ago, actor Jonathan Goad's Val lit up the Stratford production of the play. A remount of that version, directed by Miles Potter, opens here this week.
"The more I discover about Val, the more he seems someone who's seen all sides of life," muses the thoughtful Goad. "He raised himself from the age of 13, living and trapping in the Bayou, so close to nature that he was a wild animal. Then he found drink and sex in New Orleans.
"But it's music that sets him free and makes sense of the world for him. Music helps him realize that he can reach for higher ground and try to find as he sings the heavenly grass that will give him peace. Val's a remarkably complex creature, at once untainted and knowing."
Val draws many into his bewitched circle, but none more strongly than Lady Torrance (Seana McKenna), an Italian woman unhappily married to a sick old storekeeper. Outsiders in this Southern community, Val and Lady form a bond that leads to tragedy.
"They're each at a crossroads," says Goad, who's done fine work in Toronto and is one of Stratford's brightest young actors. "The first thing Lady says when she's alone is that she wishes she were dead; his response is "No, you don't.'
"That defines their relationship. He's not there for a 12-step support program, but he pushes her to discover another way to live her life. He's the first person to make her smile in a long time. Their friendship is absolutely vital yet has cataclysmic consequences."
Williams's script, a blend of classical and Christian elements, might veer toward melodrama in the wrong hands, but if played right, says Goad, it has a poetic grandeur.
"He's created a world that's hyper-real yet with heightened language, one that you have to throw yourself into with utter abandon. But you must play the feeling rather than the poetry, and then hopefully the poetry and feeling will match, as is the case with Shakespeare."