Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Suddenly Last Summer"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


"SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER"

by Tennessee Williams
directed by Mark Sutch

Mrs. Venable Ö Barbara Meek
Dr. Cukrowicz Ö Fred Sullivan, Jr.
Miss Foxhill Ö Robin Galloway
George Holly Ö Matt Robinson
Mrs. Holly Ö Cynthia Strickland
Catharine Holly Ö Miriam Silverman
Sister Felicity Ö Janice Duclos

Tennessee Williamsí SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER is the second play in his trio of Southern Gothic dramas, preceded by ORPHEUS DESCENDING, where Val Xavier is torn apart by dogs, and followed by SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH which concludes with Chance Wayne awaiting castration. In SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, the poet Sebastian Venable had mysteriously died the previous year on the island of Cabeza de Lobo; his cousin Catharine, who witnessed his demise, suffered a nervous breakdown, was institutionalized by Sebastianís mother Mrs. Venable and is prone to violent ravings, prompting the old woman to demand that a lobotomy be performed on her niece whom she considers a lunatic and a slanderer of her sonís character. Dr. Cukrowicz, a cool but compassionate doctor summoned to perform the operation, cautions that such an extreme measure may not be necessary; he gives Catharine a truth serum and the eveningís set-piece is her monologue of what had happened to Cousin Sebastian suddenly, last summer. What was once considered shocking about the play is not so, anymore, and the eraís morality forced Mr. Williams to be coy about Sebastianís homosexuality but through SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER he expressed his anger and grief over his own motherís consent to have his beloved sister Rose lobotomized at a time when the procedure was still in its infancy, rendering Rose an emotional cripple for the rest of her life --- indeed, SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER is the fever-dream of THE GLASS MENAGERIE with another matriarch clinging to the past, the fragile girl she torments and the gentleman caller who is unexpectedly charmed by the latter. Those who only know the over-padded, over-censored 1959 film version might dismiss it all as heavy-breathing nonsense and consider Dr. Cukrowicz to be incredibly slow on the uptake (he echoes othersí lines like a parrot), but Catharine and Mrs. Venable are well-drawn and there is a palpitating menace in the playís primeval garden, its Venus fly-traps and jungle cries, its imagery of savage birds, both feathered and human; the question, then, is how well can a director make your flesh creep in the Val Lewton manner (i.e., through suggestion rather than explicitness)?

The Trinity Repertory production, sadly, doesnít raise a goose bump --- Mark Sutch has staged it in such good taste that it could easily be loaned to the Huntington in Boston, complete with Mrs. Venableís seal of approval. Fritz Szaboís pretty setting may not be the hothouse that Mr. Williams so vividly describes but the Venable mansion evokes enough of the House of Atreus to lend credibility to all of the Greek-messenger reportage and much of Mr. Williamsí poetry is exquisitely shaped and declaimed without lapsing into camp. The four supporting players are an excellent four-corner frame for the leads: Miss Foxhill is a fleeting role but Robin Galloway plays it correctly as just another item on her checklist and Matt Robinson punches up George Holly into a vibrant con-artist instead of the fifth-wheel, as written --- both are bright Trinity Rep debuts. Cynthia Stricklandís Mrs. Holly is a lovely lesson on how to be flamboyant yet still in character and Janice Duclos is traditionally swathed for Sister Felicity, leaving only her round, dimpled mask to subtly express emotions tender and fierce.

One of the drawbacks of a repertory company is that certain actors are not always right for certain roles and I cannot see why Fred Sullivan, Jr. was selected for Dr. Cukrowicz when his hamming would have been better served in THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, playing right upstairs. The blond, Nordic angel of mercy now becomes a softened good olí boy embellished with Mr. Sullivanís familiar stock-reactions which he may consider character illumination but others will dismiss as upstaging, pure and simple, a dismissal further underscored by the rest of the company remaining politely still during Catharineís crucial monologue. Miriam Silvermanís Catharine is not voluptuous as Elizabeth Taylorís was in the film version so one must work at picturing her as a decoy in a see-through bathing suit; on the other hand, Ms. Silvermanís scrambling ways makes her Catharine a high-strung colt who could easily bolt, fall or be pushed into neurosis. If only Mr. Sutch could have seated Ms. Silverman center stage in a growing spotlight to slowly, dreamily pour out her truth --- instead, Ms. Silverman wanders about, intent on giving one hell of an audition and, when coupled with Mr. Sullivanís mugging, the horror of what happened the previous summer is diluted.

Ms. Strickland begins the evening most amusingly to welcome the audience and to speak to them about cell phones and fire exits; the evening concludes with Barbara Meek being the last one out to take a curtain call, a decision well justified. In the past Iíve only seen Ms. Meek in ensemble parts but her Mrs. Venable, the second color-blind casting of a Williams role Iíve seen this year, dominates the first half of the production and the air still vibrates with her presence after she has stepped or is wheeled out of sight. Ms. Meek, a natural word-charmer, demonstrates her art with a minimum of fussiness and soon has the audience in Mrs. Venableís steely, ladylike grip --- if Ms. Meek can stop the world in this manner there is no reason why Ms. Silverman cannot attempt to do likewise and join Ms. Meek at the end in a mutual bow of triumph.

"Suddenly Last Summer" (30 September - 6 November)
TRINITY REPERTORY COMPANY
201 Washington Street, PROVIDENCE, RI
1 (401) 351-4242

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