Suddenly, Last Summer
nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
July 16, 2005
The Sackett Group is currently staging Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer at the Brooklyn Music School Playhouse. The play embraces Williams's eternal themes of conflicts in human nature, desperation in family matters, sexual scandals, and the poet’s search for meaning. Slightly more realistic than his later work, but still heavily reliant on poetic images and language, it is a beautiful but difficult script. The Sackett Group, a relatively new company, takes it on with freshness and earnestness.
The play centers around Violet Venable, an aged woman with all the money and charm of the Old South and all the life experience of a bohemian vagabond (at least, she thinks so of herself). Her son, Sebastian, has died abroad, on the first trip in 25 years that she hasn’t accompanied him on. She blames the death on her niece Catherine, who traveled with her son. She claims Catherine is both slanderous to her son’s reputation and completely insane, and, sweet-as-sugar, suggests to Dr. Cukrowitz (whom she has invited for the afternoon to observe Catherine) that the best solution is probably be to lobotomize her. When Catherine does arrive, the play is complicated by the arrival of her mother and brother, who are dependant on the charity of Mrs. Venable (their relative by marriage) and who attempt to make Catherine say whatever is most amenable to Violet. Catherine is given a dose of truth serum and the play’s mysteries begin to untangle themselves as Catherine describes what happened, very suddenly, last summer.
Director Robert J. Weinstein attempts to balance the real and surreal aspects of the play, which is immediately visible when viewing the set. Mainly realistic in the furnishings, it wildly showcases gigantic painted foliage, some looking as if it came directly out of a rainforest. The leaves that dangle from the ceiling are also vaguely the shape of birds, which nod to a piece of the text that describes a sky thick with birds of prey from one of Sebastian’s and Violet’s trips. The lights also change drastically from moment to moment, which contributes to a dreamlike atmosphere.
Weinstein does not seem as able to incorporate this surrealism with his actors, who give convincingly naturalistic performances. The poetry of Williams's writing seems therefore a bit of an impediment to the actors, and the blocking is often staid and little stiff. Characters speak of a conflict of desires, but the actors rarely manifest much conflict. The performances seem a bit too straightforward, which ignores contradictions and insinuations suggested in Williams’s text.
A ready-made example is Williams’s treatment of Sebastian’s mother, Violet. This character never ceases to amaze me, especially in the delicate and insidious control she exerted over her son. She is especially concerned with being the one woman in his life, insisting vehemently to Dr. Sugar (as she calls Cukrowitz, whose name is Polish for "sugar") that her son was “chaste.” One would think a mother would not be so protective and proud of the characteristic of chastity in her 40-ish son. She also revels in the fact that she was not thought of by others in their travels as Sebastian’s mother. “It was never Sebastian and his mother, but always Sebastian and Violet,” she gushes, exuberant and proud. She seems to enjoy the fact that people thought of the two of them more as a couple than as mother and son. Whether or not she actually had relations with her son is past the point. Williams just drops enough insinuation to make one uncomfortable. It is clear that Violet prefers being treated more like a lover than a mother, and keeps anyone away who might usurp that place. However, Violet has been undone, as Sebastian became physically disgusted by his mother after she suffered a small (but disfiguring) stroke. Violet cannot admit that she was replaced, nor that she had anything as unattractive as a stroke. But the fact remains that she was left behind, and replaced by the younger, fitter Catherine.
Dorothy Stasney, who portrays Violet in this production, is almost too good at playing the matriarch. We never see the jilted lover side of Mrs. Venable, not even an inkling, as she appears straightforwardly maternal throughout.
Similarly, other actors seem to miss out on some complexities of their characters, which lessens the tension a bit. Ellen Lindsay's Catherine does not seem particularly disturbed, making her a little too obvious as a victim of her aunt’s revenge. And Matthew Healy's Dr. Sugar is a bit too sweet and well-intentioned, considering that, in lobotomizing Catherine, he stands to receive a major grant from Mrs. Venable.
The Sackett Group has a good deal of exuberance and ambition in tackling so difficult a work. And they prove they have both a sense of humor and a feel for Southern hospitality. Perhaps nowhere better than New York (outside the South itself) can the heat and humidity of Williams’ setting of summer in New Orleans be so easily sympathized with. There is a knowingly quaint nod to this by the producers as they hand out fans and bottled water to be taken into the theater before the show. These cheeky gifts prove effective tools in becoming involved in world of the play, and to ease the discomfort of a non air-conditioned theater.
Though this is not a perfect production of Suddenly, Last Summer, The Sackett Group makes some smart choices here and shows real promise as a new company. Those who are not familiar with this play would be well advised to take this opportunity to be exposed to this rich work by Williams, and to this nonprofit theatre troupe.