Remembering Rose: Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer at New Milford’s TheatreWorks

David Begelman

Suddenly Last Summer is one of the shorter plays of Tennessee Williams, and “shorter” is a key word in describing much of the work crafted by this most talented of American playwrights, called the “Bird” by his close friends. Starting with the one-act Beauty Is the Word, authored in 1930 while the playwright was still a freshman at the University of Missouri, he went on to write literally dozens of one-act plays during his illustrious career.

Yet Williams is better known for his longer works: A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and that incomparable gem of American theater, The Glass Menagerie. Whether in longer or shorter works, Tennessee Williams was, and always will be, a major player in the annals of American stage literature.
New Milford’s TheatreWorks and director Joseph Russo have mounted a timely revival of Suddenly Last Summer, a work smoldering with an intensity Mr. Russo aptly characterizes as “equally as layered and emotionally intense” as other of Williams’ plays.

The play fairly explodes with meanings that resonate with a personal tragedy in the life of the playwright. This was the fate of his sister Rose, a schizophrenic woman who was subjected by a fledgling psychiatry to a lobotomy that changed her forever—for the worst. Williams never forgave his parents for this, and “Rose” appears hauntingly in other forms in the canon, either as the name of a tattoo, in the mental instability of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, or in the vulnerable and withdrawn Laura Wingfield of The Glass Menagerie.

In Suddenly Last Summer, Williams’ personal agony over the fate of his sister comes closer to the surface than it does in any of his other dramas. In it, the wealthy Violet Venable, (played with an imperious mien and a not so invisible trace of viciousness by our leading area actress, Noël Desiato), recruits a young psychiatrist, Dr. Cukrowicz (played in an understated, but impressively realistic way by Jeremiah Maestas), to do a consult on Catharine Holly, (played engagingly by Keilly Gillen McQuail). The three are the central characters in the drama.

Catharine has psychiatric problems (remember Rose), and Dr. Cukrowicz is a specialist in administering lobotomies (remember Rose), although he needs Violet Venable’s considerable financial support to set up a clinic to advance his practice.

Violet has it in for Catharine for two reasons. The latter in the past bonded with Violet’s son, Sebastian, an overindulged young poet, thus separating him from his adoring, but aging and disabled mother. Sebastian’s death the summer before the play’s action occurred under mysterious circumstances in the Spanish beach town of Cabeza del Lobo.

Violet wants to prevent Catharine, who was in Sebastian’s company when he died, from disclosing the details of his death. A lobotomy would silence her forever. In the meantime, considering whatever Catharine has to say as “crazy” is Violet’s temporary strategy to prevent anyone from heeding her. The girl is, after all, a psychiatric patient in the care of nuns at St. Mary’s Hospital (remember Rose).

With the help of Dr. Cukrowicz—and an injection that permits Catharine to loosen up the memories of what happened to Sebastian that fateful summer—events are reconstructed that shatter whatever shaky composure all characters have managed to sustain.

Sebastian, it turns out, was gay and used Catharine as a procurer of young Spanish boys who eventually turn on him and cannibalize him. A far cry from the son who was always among an “entourage of the beautiful, the talented, the young” in his mother's memory. Violet has her finger on the pulse of the world when she muses that “God shows a savage face to people,”

In minor roles, K. C. Ross as Miss Foxhill, Violet’s servile house aide, Katherine Almquist and David Hutchinson as Catharine’s nasty mother and brother in the mercenary mode, and Robbin Christiani as a stern Sister Felicity, all contribute solidly to the performance. Mr. Russo directed his performers in an accomplished way, and the lighting and scenic design by Richard Pettibone and Bill Hughes were perfectly wedded to the Williams ambience of creeping decadence.

Mention should also be made of the sound design of Mr. Russo and Thomas Libonate. Scholars of Tennessee Williams dramas know what an exquisitely attuned ear the playwright had to sounds that resonate thematically within a play. In Night of the Iguana, it was the swish of a lizard’s tail; in Suddenly Last Summer, it is bird calls, maybe those of the “flesh eating” gulls Violet remembers swooping down on baby turtles scurrying frantically from inland sands to the safety of the sea in order to escape predation. God’s savage world, indeed.

As if the tension in the play hovered palpably over a cast, an unsettling atmosphere invaded its movie adaptation. Montgomery Clift (who played Dr. Cukrowicz) was unable to remember his lines due to continued inebriation and shaking fits, while Katharine Hepburn (who played Violet Venable) worked herself up into a fury that culminated with her spitting in the director’s face after the last take. The savage world brims over—even on some movie sets.

Suddenly Last Summer opened at New Milford’s TheatreWorks on July 11 and continues until August 2 of this year evening performances on Fridays and Saturdays are at 8:00 PM, and Sunday matinee performances are at 2:00 PM. Tickets may be ordered online at www.theatreworks.us, or by calling the box office at 860.350.6863.

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