Suddenly Last Summer
By David A. Rosenberg
We hear rain, but do not see it. We hear of Sebastian’s death, but do not witness it. This is Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer” at Westport Country Playhouse, a work of indecision and precision, of destruction and creation, of passivity and activity.
Although it’s being given a persuasive production, there’s no getting away from its stasis. Just about anything that happens in the 90-minute evening has already happened. Thus we get bouts of exposition, like a season in hell where sins must be counted and re-counted, then counted some more, through eternity.
This has always been one of Williams’ most shocking works. Cannibalism, hints of incest, procuring, insanity and lobotomy are among its offstage events. You look as you would at a car accident, wanting to see and not wanting to see, except there’s little to actually see.
On her patio, which is dominated by a gigantic Venus flytrap, the wealthy Mrs. Venable unloads her venom. She demands that the impossibly blonde, white-suited, angelic Dr. Cukrowicz (Polish for “Sugar”) perform a pre-fontal lobotomy on her niece Catharine that will “cut (this) hideous story out of her brain.”
What story? We learn at the beginning that Violet Venable and her supposedly chaste son Sebastian traveled together in a relationship that was more than mother and son, in a symbolic, not sexual sense. Then, when Violet has a small stroke, Catharine takes over, going with Sebastian on a voyage that ends in his death.
It’s not the “what” that interests Williams, but the “how and why.” For Sebastian, like Williams, was a sensitive poet up against a world of greed and violence. There’s a particularly fine passage describing the fight to the death of newly hatched sea turtles and the birds of prey that would devour them during their desperate race to the sea.
Sebastian wrote but one poem a year; the other nine, pregnant months were “preparation.” Explains the pretentious Violet, “A poet’s life is his work, and his work is his life.” Tied to his mother, longing to find God, Sebastian, like his saintly namesake, becomes a martyr to his inability to experience real life. Seeking peace in a turbulent world, fearful of his own homosexual desires, he uses people, especially the downtrodden, to elevate himself.
Director David Kennedy treats all this decadence like a tone poem, in keeping with Williams’ desire for abstraction. Thus, Narelle Sisson’s scenic design is spare and abstract, a glass box framed by a false proscenium, pristine instead of the called-for fantastic, tropical jungle-garden. Matthew Richards’ lighting design is non-realistic, changing colors from yellow to white to red as suits the mood. Ilona Somogyi’s costumes help create character while Fitz Patton’s original music and sound design match the text’s combination of exotic and erotic.
Exoticism and eroticism are, however, slighted elsewhere. This is a cold rendering of the play, forcing the audience to fall back on the recital of past events.
Annalee Jefferies’ Violet eschews hints of barely suppressed sexual fever in neither her relationship with the doctor nor her memory of voyages with Sebastian. But she rises to moments of powerful fury. As Catharine, Liv Rooth is buttoned up, hardly someone who “came out in the French Quarter years before I came out in the Garden District.” Still, she handles the character’s long speeches with admirable variety.
As Catharine’s mother, Mrs. Holly, Charlotte Maier conveys the woman’s acquisitive anguish, while Ryan Garbayo makes a sniveling George, Catharine’s brother. Susan Bennett as Violet’s companion Miss Foxhill, and Tina Stafford as stern Sister Felicity are immediately recognizable stock characters.
As the impersonal Dr. Sugar, Lee Aaron Rosen captures Williams’ obsession with impure purity. Although he’s basically an interlocutor (“What did you mean by that?”), he represents the need - monetary and sexual - that Williams considers the twin pillars of society’s debauchery and desire.
You’ll need patience to sit through “Suddenly Last Summer,” yet the writing is as blazing as the sun that Williams describes as “a great white bone of a giant beast that had caught on fire in the sky.” But don’t take the kiddies.