It’s not difficult to picture yourself in the dreadful heat of southern Mississippi after watching five minutes of The Rude Mechanicals rehearse in the Student Theatre Arts Complex. Luckily for the cast, this heated challenge (among others, like rehearsing over Groove) helped to get its production of Tennessee Williams’s “Orpheus Descending” up to the caliber for which it strove. The Rude Mechanicals will grace the stage of the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre starting tonight.

“Orpheus Descending”

Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Mendelssohn Theatre
Tickets from $3

Although the action of “Orpheus” takes place in an unnamed Mississippi town in the script, director Kacie Smith, a junior in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, was most interested in emphasizing that this town is Hell.

“The design elements create a strange, unrealistic environment in which these characters move and live,” Smith wrote in an e-mail interview. “They are never aware that they are in Hell, but every character is there for a reason.”

“Orpheus” follows a group of characters, each faced with a set of oppressions that create his or her own personal Hell. For instance, Carol Cutrere, played by Music, Theatre & Dance junior Devin Lytle, is a “reckless free spirit,” Smith wrote, who “self-destructively follows her own path and stands up for her own convictions,” while lead character Lady is a “strong, proud, independent woman who has been scarred and damaged by a painful life.”

Each character’s personal struggle falls under the umbrella of an overall violent arc, depicting a town that is “ruthless toward those they see as foreigners” and characters which include brutally violent men and gossipy women who “celebrate in the suffering of others,” Smith wrote.

Paul Koch, a Music Theatre & Dance junior who plays Val, said what stuck out for him was “the way in which towns can set their own rules.”

Koch said the town functions as Hell directly because of this, stating that those in power “have created this world within this town that doesn’t have … anything to do with human decency and everything to do with controlling the world the way they see fit.”

Smith explained that conveying the theme and mood of “Orpheus” — beyond the work of the actors — was made possible by the large budget allotted for the production. With more than $14,000 given to The Rude Mechanicals from the University Activities Center for the production, Smith and her creative team were able to achieve the large-scale design concept required to elicit the emotional response the drama calls for.

“In the final moments of the play, we are not only flying an actor, but also using projections, sound, live musicians, lighting and fog,” Smith wrote. “The budget gives us the ability to expand the design concept to match the expansiveness of the drama.”

As a Georgia native, Lytle finds that Tennessee Williams is less often performed in Michigan and students should grasp the opportunity to see a big budget, student-produced southern drama.

“We read every Willams play in high school,” Lytle said. “We all read ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ and ‘Glass Menagerie,’ and I feel like those are clichés at this point. But this is one of Williams’s first plays that he worked on throughout his career.”

The play was initially written as “Battle of Angels” in 1940, but after it was poorly received, Williams rewrote the play as “Orpheus Descending” and it premiered on Broadway in 1957.

“(Williams) was very passionate about this play and about this story,” Lytle said, “and I feel like this is a chance to see something you wouldn’t normally see in very liberal Ann Arbor.”

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