Suddenly Last Summer
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 18, 2006
Like many of Tennessee Williams's plays, his one-act Suddenly Last Summer is a feverish underdog story. It tells of a possibly disturbed young woman threatened by her domineering aunt, and left hung out to dry by her scheming, greedy relatives. Many of Williams's hallmarks, such as mental illness, primal sexuality, and the warlike dichotomy between one's public face and one's hidden desires, are prominently on display. It's quite a lot to fit into 90 minutes. For some critics, the play has always felt crowded and overheated, and many have dismissed it as second-rate work by its author. To me, that's like carping that Cymbeline is bad Shakespeare, or Peer Gynt is flawed Ibsen. Like those authors before him, Williams proved that his was a unique and extraordinary gift: he invented (and reinvented) entire genres, wrote with startling fervency, and played by his own rules. It comes as no surprise, then, that Roundabout Theatre Company's gripping new revival of Suddenly Last Summer is a much-needed reminder that second-rate Williams is still better than first-rate work by most other playwrights.
The setting is 1936 New Orleans, in the overgrown garden of Violet Venable, a physically frail but emotionally autocratic widow grieving over the death of her son, Sebastian. He died mysteriously over a year ago while traveling abroad with his cousin, the beautiful but troubled Catherine. She's been in and out of mental institutions since Sebastian's death, put there by Mrs. Venable, who is livid over her niece's allegations that Sebastian was...well, not the person everyone thought he was. Mrs. Venable, out to restore her son's good name, enlists the help of handsome Dr. Cukrowicz to interview and examine Catherine. His findings may mean the difference between Catherine's release and being subjected to the doctor's new experimental treatment for hysteria: a lobotomy.
Catherine's immediate family also has a financial stake in all of this, as does Dr. Cukrowicz. If she would just recant her outlandish story, her mother and brother would receive a substantial inheritance from Sebastian's will, one that Mrs. Venable has tied up in probate court for the time being. Meanwhile, it might be in Dr. Cukrowicz's best interests to declare Catherine insane (whether she is or not) since he gets a sizable amount of financial support for his research from Mrs. Venable. In Suddenly Last Summer, Williams handily stacks the deck against everybody.
All of this could easily come off as silly if it weren't done so well. But, Williams endows Suddenly Last Summer with life-or-death urgency that affirms the author's faith in his story. While this play may not connect with audiences as strongly as some of his more famous ones, Williams seems to have invested just as heavily in Suddenly Last Summer. His writing here is carnal, evocative, and wildly imaginative, holding its own with his very best work. Case in point: Catherine's story about her and Sebastian's trip together last summer. Her dead cousin's fate is weird and surprisingly violent, even for Williams, but the author's evocation of it is daringly alive.
For the most part, Roundabout's production follows suit. Director Mark Brokaw and set designer Santo Loquasto tap into the play's untamed carnal energy with a luxurious physical rendering of Mrs. Venable's garden, so thick and overgrown it resembles a humid, steamy jungle. Brokaw also picks up Williams's immediacy and runs with it, passing it on to almost every cast member. The splendid Blythe Danner plays Mrs. Venable with a suffocating regal bearing that veils how touchingly desperate she is to hold on to her dignity. As Catherine, Carla Gugino gives a lusty, fiery performance as a woman who, by her admission, "came out in the French Quarter long before I came out in the Garden District." Becky Ann Baker, Sandra Shipley, Karen Walsh, and Wayne Wilcox are all equally good in a variety of smaller roles. The only weak link, unfortunately, is Gale Harold as Dr. Cukrowicz. He is undoubtedly present, but a little one-dimensional. He brings nothing to the role but matinee idol looks, and a single-minded woodenness that makes him look wan next to everyone else.
Thankfully, everything else about Suddenly Last Summer is top-notch. Roundabout's terrific production shows us that, indeed, they don't write 'em like they used to. If only today's major playwrights put even a trace of the energy into their so-called "second-rate" works that Williams put into his, the theatre would be infinitely better off for it.