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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Suddenly Last Summer
Williams was quoted as anticipating that the play's 1958 Off-Broadway debut, on a double bill with In the Garden District, would have him "critically tarred and feathered and ridden on a fence rail out of the New York theatre". Contrary to his expectations, it was well received and had a respectable 216-performance run. It was also made into a star-studded movie (Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift) and was revived on Broadway in 1995, again as a double bill and named for the second play..
The one-acter takes place in a lush conservatory outside the home of Mrs. Venable, a wealthy New Orleans matron. The beauty and tranquility of the surroundings is deceiving. The plant life in the conservatory is of the carnivorous variety and the sounds that fill the air are more reminiscent of the jungle than a bird sanctuary.
Mrs. Venable herself speaks softly, but there is an instantly apparent sharp edge to her conversation with her guest, a psychiatrist named Cukrowitz whom she playfully addresses as Dr. Sugar, per the translated meaning of his name. The endowment she has promised to the doctor' hospital has thinly disguised strings attached and there is nothing playful about this meeting. What we are witnessing is not a casual slice of 1938 life in the genteel New Orleans Garden District but a trial.
As the mother recalls happier summer sojourns it becomes clear that she felt jealous and usurped even before his sudden death. With no hope of a return to the happy days when she and her son were known as "Violet and Sebastian", she is determined to preserve the carefully image of a sensitive poet who died chaste at age forty. She justifies her malevolent intent to the psychiatrist by declaring "The girl is a destroyer. My son was a creator." Given her ability to fund Dr. Sugar's work and keep Catherine's impoverished mother and brother from collecting the money due them from Sebastian's will, she may just succeed in carrying out her horrendous plan for her niece.
The play's characters tread familiar Williams terrain. Catherine, like other Williams women (especially Laura in The Glass Menagerie and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire), is in peril of being devoured by the menace which looms in the form of lobotomy and permanent incarcerations.
Overarching all these fragile women is the playwright's own sister Rose who underwent a lobotomy and spent her life in an institution. Shadowing Violet Venable is Williams's own mother. And dominating the whole story is the typically unseen, dead homosexual Williams man, Sebastian Venable. Even before the doctor administers a truth serum and we hear Catherine's story (Sebastian did not die chaste and was, in fact , quite unconventional in his lack of chastity -- using his mother as a procuress and substituting Catherine when she could no longer travel)the darkness of what happened "suddenly last summer " is symbolically foreshadowed by the greenery Sebastian planted in the Venable garden.
The Barrington Stage production of this often lyrical psychological battle is perfectly decent, but hardly definitive rendering. John Coyne's set is pretty and evocative of the place and period but it is too pretty and pastel bright to capture the gothic flavor of doom. Joe Jurchak's sound design is more successful.
At the opening night performance Anita Gillette took a while to ignite the sparks simmering beneath the carefully groomed exterior but by the time she raisesd her cane to strike her unstoppable niece she became a believable demon dowager. Peter Hermann is excellent as the quiet (and quietly sympathetic) psychiatrist. Also giving solid support are Marion McCorry as the meek and mousy mother, David McNamara as the smarmy brother and Angela Bullock as Catherine's caretaker from the private asylum where she has been treated for her shattered nerves. Tertia Lynch makes the strongest contribution as the fragile yet not to be quieted Catherine. Her posture and every move reflect that she has already been subjected to too many drugs and treatments. Her final monologue is the gut-wrenching highlight of the ninety minutes.
Elinor Renfield, who gamely jumped in to take the helm from an ailing Bob Ruggiero, is an able director. However, despite her capable direction, she has not been able to overcome the problems of poorly projected voice delivery. Maybe there was something wrong with the sound system last Saturday since even from Row E you had to strain to catch much of Williams's beautiful lyricism -- a complaint echoed all around me and out in the parking lot. This does make one wish that the invaluable Barrington Stage Company and its talented and community-minded artistic director, Julianne Boyd, will soon find a somewhat more intimate home with more user-friendly accoustics.
To check out our authors' album feature on Tennessee Williams -- his biography, quotes from his plays, lins to reviews of plays by and about him -- go here.