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A CurtainUp Review
Suddenly Last Summer
By Elyse Sommer
Blythe Danner & Carla Gugino
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Suddenly, Last Summer opened in 1958 Off-Broadway as half of a Tennessee Williams double bill under the umbrella title of Garden District for its New Orleans setting. Most subsequent revivals (and there have been many), dropped the second one-acter, Something Unspoken, though the two-part Garden District did make it to the Circle in the Square on Broadway (albeit for a very brief run) with Elizabeth Ashley as Mrs. Venable and Jordan Baker as Catharine.
Often considered one of Williams' most poetic works, its overheated Southern Gothic flavor and murky metaphors have kept it within the ranks of lesser Williams plays. The play's chief attraction is as a vehicle for the actresses playing the monster mother, Violet Venable, and Catharine Holly, the niece victimized by her venom. Thus the sanitized 1959 film version directed by Joseph L. Mankiewitz and adapted by Gore Vidal was a star vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor as Catharine and Katharine Hepburn as Mrs. Venable.
It's hard to believe that the lovely Blythe Danner is old enough to play Mrs. Venable (she probably isn't) but there she is — full of arthritic tics but not too frail to wield Southern charm and steely determination to stop the niece she's always disdained but now despises, from "babbling" about the horrific way Sebastian Venable met his death during an annual outing to an exotic distant place — in this case the coastal town of Cabeza de Loboin Spain.
Even that master at understated direction, Mark Brokaw, can do just so much to make Suddenly Last Summer anything but an overly lush and symbol laden play structured around two monologues delivered as if by witnesses at a trial — Mrs. Venable being the witness for the prosecution and Catharine, the defendant, and the young doctor the judge whose own financial needs making him less than 100% impartial. Blythe Danner conveys the icy bitterness of the grief stricken mother, mourning her own glory days as her adored son's companion as much as that son's death, as she makes her case to the young doctor (Gale Harold) who specializes in the new treatments of mental illness that include lobotomies.
Good as Danner is, it's when this production's Catharine (Carla Gugino) enters the Venable home's tropical garden that this bizarre story bursts into full dramatic fire. Gugino, who delivered an equally electric performance in her 2004 Broadway debut as the Marilyn Monroe character in Arthur Miller's After the Fall (review), is at once earthy and heartbreakingly fragile. Her debutante days (sponsored by Mrs. Venable to whom she's related via the late Mr. Venable) were clouded. Her disastrous holiday with Sebastian as a stand-in for his mother after she has a slight stroke has left her shattered, and her confinement and over medication at a local Catholic hospital has further weakened her mental state. Thus she is part young Blanche Du Bois of Streetcar, part Laura of The Glass Menagerie and absolute dynamite as Catharine.
The minor characters remain decidedly minor, strictly functionaries for the two women: Gale Harold doesn't add much except an attentive ear though he's is an attractive enough Dr. Cukrowitz whose nickname, Dr. Sugar, Mrs. Venable uses often and seductively. Becky Ann Baker and Wayne Wilcox as Catharine's greedy, low born mother and brother are reminiscent of but not as developed as similar kinfolk in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Roundabout regular Sandra Shipley has little to do except look stern as Catharine's nun-guardian which is also true of Karen Walsh as Violet Venable's timid and jittery helper Miss Foxhill.
I've seen productions with too pretty scenery or with the garden's dark symbolism too overstated. Santo Loquasto has created just the right sort dense, overgrown garden with a black iron staircase to remind us that we're in New Orleans. Peter Golub's incidental music and David Weiner's lighting subtly enhance the connection between this garden with its devouring creatures and vegetation and the far distant town where Sebastian was literally devoured by a group of starved children.
With Tennessee Williams' plays having enjoyed quite a comeback in recent years, , it's understandable to want to give even his minor plays a shot at resonating more meaningfully with contemporary audiences who are more open to issues that Williams had to present in a more veiled manner. Major or minor, anything by this great stage poet, is interesting to see for the way Williams' character types, themes and settings show up again and again. The exotic and dangerous vacation setting where Sebastian Venable is killed in Suddenly Last Summer also figures importantly in Night of the Iguana. There are parallels between the controlling Mrs. Venable and the mother in Glass Menagerie. I've already pointed out the kinship between the emotionally overwrought Catharine and Blanche DuBois and Laura.
Like the Venus flytrap in Violet Venable's garden and like the gracious life of a pre-Katrina New Orleans, this 90-minute play should be appreciated for its poetry, its exoticism and as a chance to see a veteran and a new stage star shine.
Suddenly Last Summer— a London revival
Suddenly Last Summer— a regional theater revival
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide