Friday, July 20, 2012

Theatre review: "Suddenly Last Summer" from The Summer Company. Sunday, 22nd July 2012

The Summer Company has taken on Tennessee Williams fascinating, dark tale Suddenly Last Summer, giving it a thorough sense of reality with convincing performances despite a script which has few actual developments. Fundamentally this loquaciously dwells on one subject, yet the actors keep it so alive that you may not mind such weakness nor the play’s other flaws including a clumsily constructed ending. 

This is another of Williams’ ventures into the cruelty and despair which haunted his soul, and director John E. Lane Jr. does his audience an admirable service by writing about such background in his program notes. 

The long one act spends most of its time focusing on one absent person, recently deceased 40 year old Sebastian Venable. At his bizarrely decorated home, his mother Violet tries to bribe youngish surgeon Dr. Cukrowicz into lobotomizing her niece Catherine. Violet wants the operation to cut away the throbbing essence of the young woman’s description of witnessing Sebastian’s gruesome death the previous summer. Violet refuses to accept the story; it disrupts her belief that Sebastian was some kind of a saint.

The entire play builds up to fleshing out that story while Violet’s character also becomes clearly revealed.

Williams has both women separately tell of Sebastian’s life-and-death-defining moments and how they encompass his vision of God. 
As in classic Greek tragedies, the most searing moments are described rather than seen, although this Sebastian is no tragic hero. Hints of wanton homosexuality course through the narratives, the mother’s boy clearly, intensely interested in other boys. Echoes of wild Dionysian rites lurk in the shadows. So too does the image of martyred Saint Sebastian, his body pierced by bloody barbs. 

In addition to evoking the Sebastian legend, Williams has laid on other pungent, obvious symbols, starting with a well-fed Venus flytrap and winding up with details of horrible events at a place named Cabeza de Lobo. 

Remarkably Lane and his cast have found ways to keep all the talk vivid despite minimal stage movement during long speeches, in which this play abounds. From start to finish Susan McGregor-Laine’s adept and skillful portrayal of Violet makes her every self-revealing speech clearly believable. Most of the time, though, she misses conveying Violet’s poisonous similarities to her dead son. Teresa Madden Harrold as Catherine gives her the right sweetness mixed with justified self-assertiveness, but, when she launches into telling about what brought on Sebastian’s death, she doesn’t seem as terrified as you’d think she’d be. Meanwhile John Feightner’s version of Dr. Cukrowicz remains believably sturdy and sympathetic.

Opening night there were odd, seemingly random, distracting insertions of bird calls and short music passages which served no evident purpose. And, if you’re wondering how these characters could be seriously talking of lobotomy in this day and age you might want to know that the play takes place in 1936 New Orleans, neither fact stated in the program.

Here Williams’ flowing language comes across as less florid than in some other plays, as if caught up in forcefully telling Sebastian’s tale clearly rather than decorating it excessively. That may be because Williams wants to make a major point. You will find it. This summer.

Suddenly Last Summer continues through July 28th at Peter Mills Theater in Duquesne University’s Rockwell Hall, 600 Forbes Avenue. Tickets through Gemini Theater Company’s box office: 412/24-5201. Info at 412/243-6464.

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