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PUNCTUATING FEAR AND HORROR: Tennessee William’s ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ is a must-watch sequel to ‘Glass Menagerie’

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“Suddenly Last Summer” remains one of Gwenyfar Rohler’s favorite scripts.

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Thalian Hall Cube Theatre Project switches gears from the hold-your-sides funny work of Neil Simon’s “Odd Couple” to the probing world of Tennessee Williams’ 1958 one-act play, “Suddenly Last Summer,” in the Ruth and Bucky Stein Studio Theatre. Directed by Don Baker, it is a powerful production that will sit with audiences for days after the curtain falls. Williams’ work, more than any playwright before him, really, creates a voyeuristic quality for the audience. We aren’t so much being told a story, as much as watching people’s lives unfold as if no one is watching.

So we enter a large New Orleans Garden District Mansion in the 1930s. Scenic crew Fritzi Huber, Donna Troy, Robin Dale Robertson and Joshua Drew have created a lush, jungle-like atmosphere in the home’s garden, which evokes the darkness of the bayou of Louisiana. It’s complete with an oak tree to suggest a proscenium and Spanish moss hanging from it. The tasteful and dated wicker furniture makes it clear at a glance where we are.

At a time when money is scarce across the country, the owner, Violet Venable (Kitty Fitzgibbon), clearly has resources to live luxuriously and use her money as a weapon to bend the world to her will. Mrs. Venable is giving young Dr. Cukrowicz (Hal Cosec) a tour of the garden. She has brought him here with a very specific mission and is determined to leave no doubt in his mind what it is she expects of him. Her son, Sebastian, has died unexpectedly, and her niece, Catherine (Jamie Harwood), witnessed it, which sent her into insanity, Thus, Mrs. Venable had her committed to a mental institution, wherein Dr. Sugar oversees her care.

Fitzgibbon’s rendition of Venable as a wealthy, spoiled woman with a terrifyingly unhealthy relationship with her recently deceased son, Sebastian, is hard not to watch in awe. She actually made my skin crawl and raised a lot of questions: Does she live in denial in regards to Sebastian? Or is it actually a portrait of an abuser before a time when society really recognized child and family abuse? If it’s cloaked in shadows of respectability, it’s OK, right?

Williams’ built a joke/insight into the script that should show us just how far Venable’s charms have slipped. When discussing his name, Cukrowicz explains it means “sugar” in Polish and so she insists calling him such: “Dr. Sugar.” What follows is a sad and sickening attempt by Venable to flirt with the doctor. The audience clearly understands Venable views herself still as a desirable, young woman—one who would be attractive to a man younger than her son (or even her son). But, really, Cosec and the audience see an ageing invalid.

Cosec plays Dr. Sugar as a young, attractive psychiatrist, with plans and ambition beyond his financial means. Though an easy target for Venable three years earlier, now, her antics just show a caricature of a monster. Pressing on with her objective, Venable dangles the bait: She can afford to finance Dr. Sugar’s dreams, if he will lobotomize Catherine.

The arrival of Catherine’s mother (Chris Miller) and brother (Jeremy Weir) gives us poor relations that Mrs. Venable continues to support financially. It is in the 1930s, so work is scarce, even for people who actually have skills, ambition and a work ethic—which, clearly, these two have never possessed. In addition, Sebastian’s will leaves them each $50,000, but Mrs. Venable is holding it hostage in probate and will continue to do so unless she gets her way.

Part of what makes Fitzgibbon’s performance as Venable so interesting is her motivation for wanting Catherine’s lobotomy; it’s partly revenge or punishment since Catherine usurped her in Sebastian’s affections. It’s also partly her stated aim to make Catherine stop repeating the horrifying and fantastic story of Sebastian’s death—one Mrs. Venable refuses to believe and wants to make sure no one else ever hears. Veneble’s combined motivations of jealousy and control really make her a formidable foe.

Possibly the most chilling moment of the show comes when Miller as Catherine’s mom silently contemplates going through with her daughter’s lobotomy, while sitting next to her on a settee. Audiences can see her rationalizing it all: Would it be so bad if Catherine got a lobotomy?  After all I’ve done for her, surely she can get me $50,000? Would it hurt her? Isn’t she fine in the institution? Isn’t that better than her being home with us and all of us starving? Catherine having this teensy, tiny operation is the price?

It’s all a set-up to see if Catherine will tell Sebastian’s death story again. Dr. Sugar gives her an injection that renders her in a waking trancelike state—to answer his questions whether she wants to or not. Baker puts her center stage at a table, smoking a cigarette. The lighting designers, Lila Kolotello and Nick Fenner, dimmed the rest of the stage, except for a single overhead light. Combined, the choices create an unmistakable portrait of an interrogation scene.

It is a very demanding role for any actress to undergo; Harwood surprises and rises to the occasion. She creates tension so palpable, the whole theatre feels enveloped. She has to make it convincing, from a sitting position with very little interaction with the rest of the performers. Thus, when she gets to the end, Mrs. Venable’s behavior and motivation are completely justified. We have no doubt as to why Fitzgibbon picks up the cane and what she means to do with it—and neither does Fitzgibbon or anyone else on stage. Harwood has been leading us to an inescapable moment. It is completely believable, punctuated by fear and anger.

“Suddenly Last Summer” remains one of my favorite scripts. It was the first Tennessee Williams’ play I saw live (in the same space) and it ignited a lifelong love of Williams’ work. This production, if anything, reinvigorates my passion. Though Williams’ bills “‘The Glass Menagerie’ as a memory play,” “Suddenly Last Summer” is its sequel.

In real life, Williams’ beloved sister Rose was given a lobotomy, which left her institutionalized. The scheming, empty younger brother George, who plays sports and pledges the right fraternity, easily can be connected with Williams’ younger brother Dakin. Williams’ deep personal pain comes through in the script—and the performers must bring it to life in a way that makes the work resonate. Baker and the cast certainly do just that. They infuse full horror into a family playing games of power and submission to life. It is a remarkable, almost exhausting, roller-coaster ride through human psychology, love and the prices we are willing to make other’s pay for our desires.

Suddenly Last Summer
Mar. 21-23, 25, 28-30, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Mar. 24, 31, 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $28

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