One of Tennessee Williams’ most overwrought but luridly enjoyable Plays, Orpheus Descending, has had its volume lowered and its passion dimmed for television — this is Tennessee tamed by Ted Turner. But give Turner’s channel credit for airing this project at all. This Peter Hall film adaptation of Hall’s 1988-89 stage versions is a real fall-through-the-cracks production: too literary for the commercial networks, too pulpy for PBS.
Vanessa Redgrave stars as Lady Torrance, a passionate, intelligent woman whose loveless, brutal marriage has reduced her to a sad-eyed drudge. The time is 1948, the setting is the Deep South, and into Lady’s life walks Val (Kevin Anderson), a moody drifter who has only to strum a battered guitar to seduce gullible girls and a bored housewife like Lady. Val seems to have been Williams’ take on Elvis Presley, but the way Kevin Anderson plays him, Val sounds like an even more mopey version of James Taylor.
Redgrave conveys her despair subtly, and triumphs even over her accent, which is supposed to be some combination of Italian and Southern. Brad Sullivan is suitably baleful as her husband, but, like everyone else here, curiously quiet and restrained at precisely those dramatic moments when Williams’ lines suggest chaos, noise, and madness. B