“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.
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.
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.
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