Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is playing on Broadway, but it’s not the only Tennessee Williams ticket in town. A few blocks away, the master’s short work, Suddenly, Last Summer is on for a few weeks in a considerably smaller scale production, but one that delivers Williams’s controlled explosion with the nuanced treatment it deserves.
This is as bare bones as it gets: an office building in a bare room on the eighth floor, the actors on plastic folding chairs, the audience a few feet away, on plastic folding chairs, too. The room fits about 40 people at the very most. This is a true test of theatre: without lighting effects, without an elaborate set, without the view of Scarlett Johansson in the luscious flesh and without the forgiving attitude having paid $150 for your seat will give you. The material has the terrifying potential of going completely wrong: dramatic, rhetorical scenes of tension and madness, playing before you within intimate range. It is a one-act play with no intermission; there is no escape. And praise be, we get the best possible outcome: a psychological journey conjured by stunning language and human voices, gestures, movements. It is enough. The mind fills in the setting (a groomed jungle garden, a rich New Orleans drawing room) and the taut relationships coming to a head.
Suddenly Last Summer unfolds in real time, beginning with the rich and bereaved Mrs. Violet Venable attempting to charm and bribe Dr. Cukrowicz into performing one of his experimental lobotomies on her niece, Catharine. It’s a desperate attempt to obliterate the terrible things Catharine has been saying about Violet’s son, Sebastian, in particular about the circumstances surrounding his death. An interview with Catharine follows, witnessed by her mother and brother, Violet’s sister-in-law and nephew.
Mississippi Mud Productions describes itself as a developing company, and seems to be driven by a simple commitment to the art of acting. We are spared from, for example, any overdone Southern accent. Johanna Leister plays an elegant Mrs. Venable, letting the underlying manipulation and cruelty of the character creep in slowly. The long opening exposition, wherein Mrs. Venable paints her version of the truth, which could easily drag in less experienced hands, is masterfully delivered and sets the pace and tone for the rest of the show, with Williams’ piercingly savage imagery coming to life. Jen Danby (also the company’s founder and artistic director) never exaggerates Catharine’s madness, another potential pitfall. An atonal quality to her voice, a strange inflection, an incongruous smile is enough to signal that something is amiss.
Austin Pendleton is a distracted Dr. Cukrowicz, perhaps because he has so successfully directed the production. The action is balanced across the stage and the tension allowed to mount slowly. A commitment to fully rendering details is also apparent. (See, for example, the evident fear in secondary characters outside of the family circle, like Mrs. Venable’s assistant and the nurse in charge of Catharine.)
Before I saw the play, I wondered if, in our worldly time that has seen everything from the sexually tortured heroine’s of Lars von Trier to gay parents on TV sitcoms, Williams’ work, with its veiled allusions to trauma and repression, would play more as a historical artifact than living representation. While we may someday arrive at the point where students of theatre have to be taught why homosexuality could bring shame and ruin to an old Southern family, in the hands of artists like these, the deeper-rooted themes–the destructive potential of parental love, the madness born of suppressing the truth, the trap of excess inherent in the mix of power and money—come shining through.