HOT TICKET: Catch A Rare Revival of Tennessee Williams’ Play “Orpheus Descending” While You Can!

photo by John Barrois

It seems you can go to almost any city for a big-budget Broadway spectacle these days. But finding a richly acted dramatic production isn’t always so easy. That’s part of what makes “Orpheus Descending,” a rare revival of a Tennessee Williams’ drama such a special New York experience.

“Orpheus Descending” – a modern version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice – is a passion project for actress and producer Beth Bartley – who fought long and hard to bring the show to New York. Originally opening on Broadway in 1957 and briefly revived in 1989, the show has rarely been seen in the city – or anywhere for that matter – since. It runs just four more days, until May 14th, at St. John’s Lutheran Church, one of the oldest buildings in Greenwich Village.

Bartley took a few minutes to tell us about the project that has occupied so much of her energy, passion and time over the past year.

How do you describe what Orpheus Descending is to someone who isn’t familiar with the work?

It’s Tennessee Williams’ fearless and “utterly original” love story set in a small town during the 1950’s in the Mississippi delta. The lead role, Valentine Xavier, which Tennessee Williams had envisioned Elvis playing (although the US Army supposedly would not permit him to do it) is played by Todd d’Amour (of Broadway’s Airline Highway).  Val is described as possessing a “wild beauty”, wearing a snakeskin jacket and  carrying a guitar covered with legendary musicians signatures: Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie…Like Val, Todd d’Amour spent much of his youth on the bayou, and in New Orleans. At the start of the play, Val shows up on his 30th birthday, saying it’s time to “get off the party”, looking for work in the small southern town. He attracts both the women and men, as the love story unfolds.
The play has rarely been seen in over 25 years in New York, partially due to it epic nature and large cast.

Beth Bartley (photo by
Beth Bartley (photo by

Why is Orpheus Descending so dear to you?

For me, it all began in Cincinnati, OH where I saw Ginny Hoffman and Gary Sandy in A Streetcar Named Desire at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. I must have been about 13 at the time. I was totally amazed by the performances. Ginny Hoffman became my first acting teacher at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. She was so brilliant and stylish. Shortly after that, I saw the Vanessa Redgrave film of Orpheus Descending. I fell in love with the writing and began collecting and coveting as many Tennessee Williams plays I could and by the age of 15, I had developed quite a library.

And you followed that passion for your whole life.

My mother, an avid reader, librarian, and historian and my father, a violinist and physicist were always enthusiasts for life and encouraged me to pursue my interests. Growing up in Mariemont, OH there was always Beethoven playing, Leonard Cohen and someone was always giving a reading of Dylan Thomas around Christmas. It was no surprise that my parents enthusiasticaly supported my new interest in theater and specifically Williams.

During junior high school, lunch breaks were spent in the library memorizing the entire final scene of The Glass Menagerie – in TW accent of course. This was not normal.

I learned a monologue from Orpheus Descending, Carol Cutrere’s “I used to be what they called a Christ-bitten reformer…” and used it to audition for boarding arts high school when I was 15 and was later  accepted into Juilliard with it.

The language of this play grabbed me at a very young age. I also found it to be very sensual and I was drawn into the love story. I also loved the rich performances of Vanessa Redgrave and Anne Twomey in the film, they were very inspiring to me.

Is it difficult turning yourself into Carol Cutrere?

Not particularly, no. Austin Pendleton’s take on the role is very simple. In his vision of the play, Carol is one of the sanest characters in the play. So I draw upon myself a lot in this process, playing direct actions. As Austin says, “it’s just talking”. She has some of the most poetic and heightened language in the play, so it is a wonderful challenge to play again that with simplicity and directness.

Do you have a favorite quote from Orpheus?

“What on earth can you do on this earth but catch at whatever comes near you with both your hands until your fingers are broken?” -Carol Cutrere

It seems that a big part of your life was not just ‘catching’ – but pursuing this particular play. What made this particular piece of work speak to you?

It’s a rich, nuanced, and layered work with some of the most extraordinary language in all of Williams, a play that dares to deal with ugly truths: racism, hatred, conformity, murder, and ostracism for being different and conversely explores themes of rebirth, creativity, beauty, love, and the importance of authenticity, sweetness, and vitality in life.

This powerful play is one of Williams greatest and under produced works. While it is tragic, it is also terribly funny and I think, one of Williams’ sexiest plays. It explores every human emotion, the deepest desires and needs.

The Orpheus Descending Cast
The Orpheus Descending Cast (photo by Ride Hamilton)

How difficult (or easy) was it to bring this production to NYC?

This play was very difficult to bring to New York. The rights were tied up for years. I sent Maison du Chocolat and other gifts to the Broadway producer who held them. Eventually, progress was made, after about 3 years, I received an email that the rights had been released, and that I was free to pursue them independently. It was a long process that required a lot of perseverance.

After the extraordinary experience of working on Suddenly Last Summer directed by Aimee Hayes in 2015 in New Orleans with Southern Rep, I instigated a run of Orpheus with Southern Rep this March, which was directed by Jef Hall-Flavin, and ran concurrent with the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. It has been thrilling to work on this play in New Orleans, and now with Austin Pendleton in New York City.

You tell a beautiful story of some inspiring words you received from one your directors after a show you were doing together.

Director Nick Potenzieri gave a heartfelt speech before our final performance (of The Hotel Plays.) He said, “Keep working, keep creating, even if you don’t have money to create. Keep acting and creating. The money will come.” When I arrived home in New York I refused to go back to normal life – I needed to keep this artistic creativity and the spirit of the festival in my everyday life. The day I returned to NY, I began to organize a reading of Orpheus Descending. I rented a theatre in the east village and contacted about 15 actor friends and we met one afternoon in early October for a read-thru. We quickly realized that everyone had different editions of the play, making for  a clumsy & fascinating read – further igniting my excitement. It was electric and I knew I was onto something, so I organized a second reading, this time for an audience. The reading went smashingly and caused more excitement among the actors, who asked me “Beth, are you going to produce this?!” Playwright Delaine Douglas attended the reading and at drinks afterward she told me “I like who your’e conspiring with.” The second reading garnered an invitation to bring the play to the Provincetown festival in 2010, where Orpheus became the central theme for all of the other festival offerings. It was a hit and received an unprecedented return to the festival in 2011.

Who are your favorite actors?

Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Colleen Dewhurst, Diana Rigg, Richard Farnsworth, Meryl Streep, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Fassbender, Christoph Waltz, Jeff Biehl

What advice do you have for those who want to aspire to be one themselves?

Follow your passion. Life is short. If there is material that excites you, work on it. Produce something and create your own work. In doing so, you may create a lot of jobs for others too.


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1 Comment

  • As a theatre lover who claims no expertise, I have seen hundreds of plays spanning back over forty years. Titles and locations blur, yet stellar performances remain locked in my memory. The passion and brilliance of this production of Orpheus Descending will stay with me the rest of my days. Thank you to Beth Bartley for her commitment to Williams’ work, and even more so for bringing Irene Glezos and Todd d’Amour together to create and deliver the most believable acts of love and despair I have ever had the privilege of witnessing on stage. Phenomenal.

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