Review: “Suddenly Last Summer” by Tennessee Williams. Produced by Theatre 9/12. Directed by Charles Waxberg. With Lisa Carswell, Joey Fechtel, Charissa Adams, Kate Szyperski, Eric Olson, Ellen Dessler, and Sarah Milici. Now through July 29, 2012 at Trinity Parish Church Hall.
Tennessee Williams is, of course, one of the great American playwrights justly canonized for works like “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Glass Menagerie” that will live for a very long time as examples of great theater, great art, and great literature. Falling right after those two major works are “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Summer and Smoke” and “The Rose Tattoo” and “The Night of the Iguana”. But, Mr. Williams’ work, like all artists, ranged from the sublime to the not so sublime and in later years the work became a bit… rococo. He was, after all, a Southerner and a gay man and fond of the gothic. Even the great works have had mediocre productions in the hands of theater companies who hammed it up when they should have played it “straight”. But, some of the later plays have scripts that are inherently hammy bordering on the ridiculous…like his one act “Suddenly Last Summer” which earned its greatest fame in its film adaptation starring Katharine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. “Suddenly Last Summer” features two gorgeously written monologues, one at the beginning of the play and the other at the end of the play, each performed by a different actress and they feature some of Williams’ lushest and most poetic writing. Unfortunately, the rest of the play surrounding those two monologues is corn pone melodrama with a ludicrous farfetched plot and a ridiculously abrupt ending. Those two monologues are an actor’s dream to perform but the rest of the play doesn’t manage to live up to the brilliance of that writing.
And, even by Tennessee Williams’ standards, the plot of “Suddenly Last Summer” is way over the top…the wealthy doyenne of a New Orleans family, Mrs. Venable has summoned hunky Dr. Cukrowicz to her Garden District villa to discuss what can be done for her “deranged” niece Catherine Holly. Catherine went mad “suddenly last summer” while traveling with Sebastian Venable, the fortysomething heir to the family fortune. Normally, Mrs. Venable would accompany Sebastian as they leisurely traveled through the posh watering holes of the wealthy, (while the revoltingly affected Sebastian wrote his yearly poem) but a small stroke left the older woman at home, (at Sebastian’s insistence and to her fury) and he brings his attractive but poor young cousin instead. But Sebastian is aging and a bit of a pervert and his dalliances with some of the local youth in a poor Spanish village leads to his death…which includes a bit of cannibalism. Catherine is naturally a bit distraught over this but Mrs. Venable refuses to face the truth, and in her fury wants Catherine lobotomized to prevent her from repeating this monstrous story. She wants Dr. Cukrowicz (aka Dr. “Sugar”) to perform an experimental lobotomy on her to keep her mouth shut once and for all. Naturally, Catherine objects to this, and in a long monologue tells us exactly what happened, “last summer”, a counterpart to Mrs. Venable’s earlier monologue recounting everything that led up to that summer.
(Yes, it’s your typical “Tyrannical Old Rich Lady Seeks Revenge On Hot Niece For Witnessing The Murder and Cannibalization Of Her Creepy Predatory Gay Son” story…)
Theatre 9/12′s current production of “Suddenly Last Summer” largely succeeds due to those two monologues and the terrific performances of the two actresses who perform them but the rest of the play is largely forgettable and there’s not much that could have been done to prevent that. Charles Waxberg is a beloved director/acting teacher in Seattle and his skillful handling of those two actresses, Lisa Carswell and Sarah Milici combined with the performances themselves, are the primary reason to see this low budget production. Ms Carswell as Mrs. Venable gives a chilling but fiery performance as a woman determined to extract her revenge. And, as the object of her fury, Sarah Milici as the emotionally damaged Catherine Holly, is equally good with each woman anchoring each end of the play with their respective monologues. Both actresses give emotionally compelling and powerful performances with detailed attention to their characters and the stories they are telling. The beautiful writing of those monologues and the equally beautiful performances by Ms Carswell and Ms Milici make this production worth seeing.
But, nearly everything else in between those moments is less involving and more than a bit irritating. Joey Fechtel does a terrific job as Dr. “Sugar” the psychiatrist, a role that largely consists of the character listening and reacting to the two actresses and he quietly and determinedly holds the stage with a quiet intensity and strong personal charisma. But, the other roles in the production either have little to actually do, or border on the grotesque. There’s a maid/assistant to Mrs. Venable who’s only job is to be bullied and a confusing nun/nurse who’s alternately menacing then sympathetic. Worst of all, are Catherine Holly’s awful mother and brother, a greedy pair willing to go along with Mrs. Venable’s plan to lobotomize Catherine if it guarantees their continued financial support. These two roles are broadly written but it doesn’t help matters much that both Kate Szyperski as the mother, and Eric Olson as the brother overdo both performances to the point where they sidetrack the play momentarily. Mr. Waxberg needed to reign in both these performances; overwrought characters usually work better if slightly underplayed.
But, both Ms Carswell and Ms Milici and their riveting performances can override some of the less savory aspects of this production and both give impassioned performances that linger long after the play ends. (I will make one small critique though…personally I think their accents are about 10% thicker than they need to be; there are a few times when they wander into the unintelligible, a frequent danger with Southern accents…and, some actual Southerners as well.)