Maggie Siff and Erica Schmidt on a Williams play 'Shot Through With Desire'

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Maggie Siff and Erica Schmidt on a Williams play 'Shot Through With Desire'
Members of the cast rehearse “Orpheus Descending” in Brooklyn on June 27, 2023. Pico Alexander, center, plays the roaming musician who attracts the attention of Lady Torrance. (Clark Hodgin/The New York Times)

by Sarah Bahr

NEW YORK, NY.- After Maggie Siff’s husband died of brain cancer in 2021, the last thing she wanted to do was a play about a woman with a husband dying of cancer.

But then, after initially pondering whether to commit to the show in 2019, she reread the script — and reconsidered her hesitation.

“I was like, ‘Oh, no, I have to do it,’” Siff, 49, said of starring in the Theater for a New Audience’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Orpheus Descending.” Now in previews, the play is scheduled to open Tuesday at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn.

Williams’ play — a modern retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, in which a man has the opportunity to get the woman he loves back if he can just follow one simple rule — is set at a small-town dry goods store in the Deep South. The writing was revelatory to Siff, especially after she had attended to her own sick spouse, Paul Ratliff, for a year.

“It has that quality of living at the edge of what’s real and realistic, and what’s mysterious and beyond our comprehension,” she said.

Siff, who is best known for her starring turn as the strong-willed psychiatrist Wendy Rhoades in the Showtime series “Billions,” plays Lady Torrance, a middle-aged storekeeper’s wife who becomes infatuated with a wandering young guitar player, Val, as her elderly, bigoted husband lies dying in a room upstairs. As the two lovers navigate their doomed tryst, they confront the ecstasies of reawakened passion, the racism of an insular community and the gradual erosion of sensuality into newfound resilience.

“It’s like sitting at the deathbed of a loved one,” said the play’s director, Erica Schmidt, who directed a New Group production of “Cyrano” for the stage in 2019, and then wrote the screenplay for the film version in 2021, both of which starred her husband, actor Peter Dinklage.

The show, which is a rewrite of Williams’ 1940 play “Battle of Angels,” was first staged on Broadway in 1957. It was a flop, running for only 68 performances. (The New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson called it a “second-rate play” by Williams, though he praised the “lyric intensity” of its dialogue and “tender writing that recalls the delicacy of ‘The Glass Menagerie.’”)

“Orpheus Descending” has rarely been revived, but Schmidt, who saw the 1989 Broadway revival and a 2019 production at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London as well as the 1959 film adaptation, “The Fugitive Kind,” said she was drawn to its exploration of how outsiders are treated in the United States. She felt the theme would resonate in 2020, when the play was originally set to be staged before the pandemic forced a postponement — even more so now, amid a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment nationwide.

“That’s possibly why it hasn’t been so successful in the past,” Schmidt, 48, said at a rehearsal on a sweltering Wednesday last month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “It’s grappling with these issues that maybe we don’t want from our Williams.”

In a conversation during their lunch break, Siff and Schmidt — unintentionally twinning in all black — discussed the play’s appeal, how it speaks to the modern moment and what has surprised them in their now years of wrestling with the work. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Why did you want to do this play?

ERICA SCHMIDT: The play is shot through with desire; this need to really live life and to cling to what matters to you with both your hands until your fingers break, as Carol [an eccentric aristocrat character] says. It reminds me of when Thornton Wilder says in “Our Town,” “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?”

MAGGIE SIFF: I was drawn to it because of the size of life and the dark, liminal space of the world. I was also incredibly scared of it. It felt like an undeniable piece of work that one would need to throw oneself into. And then a lot of life happened — my husband passed away, and I didn’t think I would be able to do this play, but I picked it up again, and these are people who are living right on that line. It’s heaven and hell, living and dying. Being alive but dead inside. And then being alive, but coming into life.

Q: What has surprised you about the text?

SCHMIDT: Williams is very prescriptive in his stage directions and his punctuation, but there is an emotional size or participation that is necessitated by this play in certain moments. The question is how you get there without just being dramatic for the sake of being dramatic.

SIFF: The thing about the play that always made me the most anxious was the hysteria. For the longest time, whenever I’d read it, the third act, I was just like, “I don’t know how this happens.” And the surprise to me in working on it is how organically it happens. While it’s very difficult to earn those states of being that are so heightened and so large, it’s really masterfully built into the play.

The other surprise is that while the play is very grim, dark and tragic, there’s so much in it that is really life-affirming and joyful to perform.

SCHMIDT: The subtext of the play is live, live, live.

Q: The original was a flop. What are you doing differently in this production?

SCHMIDT: Williams talks a lot about the vast expanse of darkness outside the door. When you look at “Battle of Angels,” the hanging tree and cotton fields are described as being right outside the door. So this is the hell that Orpheus — Val — is descending into, Two Rivers County, Mississippi, this vast, racist, sexist 1950s hell. And so, working with the set designer, Amy Rubin, we decided to put the store in the middle of the stage so we can create the vast expanse. And that’s not something I’ve seen in other stagings.

Q: Why is now the right moment to revive this?

SCHMIDT: The play demands that you pay attention to how complicit and complacent you are. Lady is essentially sleeping next to the man who wears a white hood in the night. And the legacy within the play of the Choctaw Indians who were driven from Mississippi in the Trail of Tears and the crimes of the slave trade and the legacy of all that blood on the ground. In our current cultural moment, it feels like only by looking at the past — by really looking at it — are we able to understand it and move forward, hopefully. We can’t pretend there isn’t blood on the ground.

SIFF: The play takes a mythic frame that it puts on top of a very political setup.

SCHMIDT: How we get out of hell?

SIFF: What is hell? What is the nature of heaven?

SCHMIDT: Can one person save another?

SIFF: Can people change? What does it mean to be corrupt in your soul? Is love redemptive?

SCHMIDT: Is love real?

SIFF: These are the questions that galvanize the play, and they’re questions we’ve been asking for centuries. And he’s not afraid to be like ‘Yes, I’m going to take these,’ and he throws all of those things at the wall. Maybe too many!

Q: Maggie, what do you admire about Lady Torrance? And what frustrates you about her?

SIFF: She reminds me of some of the women in my family. She’s such a survivor — I want to say tensile, is that the right word? It’s also the thing that’s her undoing — her pride.

SCHMIDT: [Reading from a dictionary app on her phone] Tensile, relating to tension, capable of being drawn out. A tensile rod.

SIFF: I think of it as like the thing that supports bridges, right? She’s lived through a lot to be in a place where she can come alive, which is, I think a feat.

SCHMIDT: Oh, it is a feat.

Q: She’s reminiscent of Williams’ other strong female characters who try to bring about change in a male-dominated society but fail. Or even your “Billions” character, Maggie, who’s similarly sharklike.v

SIFF: She would be a mean — I don’t know, what would she be in this day and age?

SCHMIDT: The owner and proprietor of a really fancy club, like some kind of massively successful Italian wine garden.

SIFF: She might also be a singer.

SCHMIDT: Yeah, and a mandolin player.

SIFF: She’d be some kind of fabulous diva.

Q: What do you hope people walk out of the theater thinking?

SIFF: Like all great pieces of theater that have tragic endings, I hope an audience will be able to walk out and still feel somehow more expanded, rather than “Oh, why did I put myself through that for 3 1/2 hours?”

SCHMIDT: Oh, no! It’s not 3 1/2. It’s going to be 2 1/2, with intermission. And it’s funny.

SIFF: There’s a lot in it that’s very life-affirming.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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