“Suddenly Last Summer,” Westport Country Playhouse, Westport

Irene Backalenick

The magic of Tennessee Williams poetry, and his quirky, neurotic, fascinating characters are always there, no matter which play. The play may fail as drama, but the unique gifts of Tennessee Williams always shine through.

Thus it is with “Suddenly Last Summer,” which is now in revival at the Westport Country Playhouse. The play itself falls far short of Williams’ best work. A one-acter which stretches into a 90-minute recitation, it offers little forward movement. Its essence is a grotesque event which occurred far in the past. So the time is filled with talk, talk, talk. Fortunately, the evening is saved by a company of fine performers and the sensitive direction of David Kennedy.

Certainly in this piece Williams explores absorbing topics—lobotomies, cannibalism, greed, incest. It’s southern Gothic at its height! The story, to be specific: Mrs. Venable, a southern matriarch, wants to have her niece Catharine lobotomized and committed to a mental hospital. She insists that the girl was responsible for her son Sebastian’s death, while the two vacationed in Europe--a proof of Catharine’s insanity, as she sees it. Is Mrs. Venable motivated by truth or a jealousy which generates a mad desire for revenge? She has had an unhealthy, probably incestuous, attachment to her son. The insanity, truth be told, lies with Mrs. Venable and her son, not with Catharine. Mrs. Venable had served for years as a procuress for her homosexual son, until her son replaced his aging mother with Catharine. The naïve girl had been delighted to be offered a European trip, little guessing the reason.

Added to the mix are the symbols of greed, personified by Catharine’s mother and brother, as well as Dr. Cukrowicz. The doctor stands to gain a new medical wing to his hospital if he agrees to the lobotomy. Catharine’s family will gain a sizeable inheritance if the girl never reveals the terrible truth.

The terrible truth, as Catharine finally reveals it, is that Sebastian was murdered by a gang of young hoodlums. The story peters away as the curtain comes down. How it is all resolved is never made clear. Nor need it be. The action is all in the past.

But the performers save the day. Annalee Jefferies as the indomitable Mrs. Venable gives a performance that sends chills up one’s spine. And Liv Rooth, as the fragile Catharine, is every bit her match, as she attempts to hold herself in one piece. Charlotte Maier and Ryan Garbayo,  as Catherine’s dreadful family, add a Grand Guignol touch. (One is reminded of the family caricatures in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”) And every one, apparently thanks to dialect coach Louis Colaianni, gets those southern accents just right.

Whatever the shortcomings of “Suddenly Last Summer,” the play hauntingly reflects the background of Williams’ own life—his sister’s lobotomy and confinement to a mental hospital, his own struggles with homosexuality, his mother’s dictatorial behavior. Yet these very agonies gave birth to a long, fruitful artistic career and a legacy to us all.

This review also appears on nytheaterscene.com


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