With "Orpheus Descending," Arena Stage goes where the Kennedy Center feared to tread. Center officials decided on a greatest-hits approach in their effort to illuminate the work of Tennessee Williams this summer and, as a result, only brand-name, full-length works -- "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "The Glass Menagerie" -- are getting main-stage treatment during the "Tennessee Williams Explored" festival.

The Kennedy Center ceded to others the riskier task of broadening an audience's perspective on Williams (there isn't, after all, a classic '50s film version of "Orpheus" to rent, just a video of a 1989 staged revival by Peter Hall). For this daring curatorial coup alone, Arena deserves Washington's applause. What the company has provided is a respectable treatment of a difficult play, offering some strong performances and some problematic ones. If, in the end, Molly Smith's production isn't the scorcher you might have hoped for, it's a valiant try.

The play gave Williams trouble, too. He wrote a version of it early in his career titled "Battle of Angels" that was tepidly received by the public. In 1957, years after his breakthroughs with "Streetcar" and "Menagerie," the play was reworked and mounted with its new name. It featured Maureen Stapleton and Cliff Robertson in the roles of a frustrated immigrant wife and her sexual liberator, a drifter with an animal appeal redolent of Elvis. Still, the intensely sensual elements of the play were never adequately reconciled with its mechanical melodramatics. As a result, "Orpheus" has, with some justification, been relegated to the status of curiosity piece.

Smith's revival, staged in Arena's Kreeger Theater, has a satin-smooth surface that shows off to advantage Williams's lush language. Yet for a story set in what amounts to a truck stop on a back road to Hell, the production has a reined-in quality. It often feels as if the tale's unlikely lovers, dry and discarded Lady Torrance (Chandler Vinton) and the bad-boy loner with the acoustic gee-tar, Val Xavier (Matt Bogart), had been instructed to keep the burner on "simmer." The low-boil theatrics muffle the play's explosive finish, when the people of this dreary southern backwater take their violent urges out on the stranger in their midst.

Vinton and Bogart are at their most persuasive shedding light on the vulnerabilities in Lady and Val. "Orpheus Descending" is by and large a tragic fable, the account of the rejuvenating effect Val has on Lady, and how an abusive, intolerant world punishes them both. Vinton brings a brittle tenderness to Lady that warms you to the plight of a lonely woman saddled with a vicious, racist, terminally ill husband (a fine J. Fred Shiffman). Bogart, who distinguished himself as the guilelessly narcissistic Lancelot of Arena's "Camelot," has the outward equipment for Val, the bedroom eyes and brawn of a romantic hero. And he warbles Val's songs, composed for this production by Eric Shim and Jack Cannon, with a soulful vibrato.

Together, though, the pairing has none of the combustibility that would convincingly set the play on a course for tragedy. For one thing, Bogart's Val seems closer to a mouse than a maverick. He doesn't exhibit the feral quality that would justify the play's final thought: "Wild things leave skins behind them." Like the Blanche and Stanley of the Kennedy Center's "Streetcar," this Lady and Val lack the incendiary inevitability of moths-to-the-candle. The liberation Val offers Lady here has only a physical dimension; there's no hint of the deeper connection, the spiritual possession of the mythical variety hinted at in the title.

An undercurrent of hysteria suffuses "Orpheus Descending," from the holy-roller ranting of the sheriff's wife, Vee Talbott (an excellent Janice Duclos), to the libido-driven entreaties of the neurotic rich girl, Carol Cutrere (the superb Kate Goehring). Smith expresses the idea of a world in extremis in the flammable environment she creates. As rendered by designer Bill C. Ray, the dry-goods store in which the play is set is the color of ashes. The walls are burned away at the edges like the ends of cigarettes. Michael Gilliam's lighting design is a further embellishment; the sky behind the shop blazes in dramatic hues of pink and orange.

The atmospherics don't extend persuasively to the dialect spoken in the Kreeger. The program lists a "speech and vocal consultant." So, were the actors actively encouraged not to sound as if they hail from a small-minded rural hamlet in the Deep South? While some of the actors attempt aural authenticity, others could as easily have stepped off a bus from Bowie as from the bayou.

Many of the supporting portrayals are at their best when conveying the bigoted brutality of public opinion in a small town. The local womenfolk form a Greek chorus of busybodies, as they endlessly gossip about Lady, whose Italian origin marks her as an outsider, someone to be regarded as suspect. The chirping actresses never overplay the caricatures. As Vee Talbott and Carol Cutrere, Duclos and Goehring are exemplars of the high-pitched theatricality Williams was after; you believe that they are the products of a community in which gothic horrors are hatched.

Shiffman's cancer-ridden Jabe Torrance carries the aura of decay about him so compellingly, he looks like a corpse from "Night of the Living Dead." From the actors playing the town's thuggish lawmen, however, a little more good ol' boy, "Deliverance"-style menace would have been helpful.

"Orpheus Descending" is by no means an easy play; the role of Val, like many of Williams's fantastical hustlers and he-men, may be darn near impossible. Smith's production, for better and for worse, takes a full accounting of the drama's pitfalls, unplayable moments and all.

Orpheus Descending, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Molly Smith. Set, Bill C. Ray; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Michael Gilliam; sound and music, Eric Shim; lyrics, Jack Cannon. With Kate Kiley, Rena Cherry Brown, Bruce M. Holmes, Paul Morella, Linda High, Anne Stone, Frederick Strother, Delaney Williams. Approximately 2 hours 50 minutes. Through June 27 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.

Matt Bogart and Chandler Vinton star in the Tennessee Williams play. Chandler Vinton brings a brittle tenderness to the role of Lady in Tennessee Williams's "Orpheus Descending."