Suddenly Last Summer is considered to be Tennessee Williams's most poetic play. Williams's carefully crafted words are heard primarily in two long monologues within the play, around which the action takes place. The 1959 film version is a staple of Turner Classic Movies, and I was curious to attend a version based on the original stage script, apparently mounted in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Williams's birth.
The story, for those who have been watching American Idol, The Hills, and Dancing with the Stars, concerns a New Orleans dowager, Mrs. Venable. She is attempting to use her wealth to manipulate both her poor relations and a doctor (who is researching a radical surgical approach to mental illness) into lobotomizing her niece by marriage. The niece, Katherine, has been hospitalized in an hysterical state since witnessing the murder of Sebastian, Mrs. Venable's son and Katherine's cousin. Katherine is ranting stories that Mrs. Venable does not want to be heard. Will Mrs. Venable get her way?
The press release waxes on about the play's "bold imagery, symbolism, and rich aural landscape." Yet apparently the director, Cyndy A. Marion, did not consider the play--as written--to have stood the test of time. It has been gussied up with "humor" and some outlandish costumes on supporting players. This is simply an unnecessary distraction. The play as written already included ironic humor, which was natural to the story.
In the stretches when it is played straight, this version of Suddenly Last Summer included three very good performances. Elizabeth Bove is superb as Mrs. Venable. Her performance is outstanding and true to the spirit of the play. Lué McWilliams is excellent as Katherine's mother, Mrs. Holly, the "concerned" and cheerful butterfly who only wants the best for her daughter--and the $50,000 (in 1935 dollars!) that she and her son are each to receive when Katherine's brain is lobotomized and Mrs. Venable lets the probate of Sebastian's will proceed. Haas Regen, as George Holly, gives a fine and authentic performance as the borderline-violent money-groveling brother of Katherine. Ms. Bove, Ms. McWilliams, and Mr. Regen give performances indeed worthy of the superbly shaped words Mr. Williams has given them, and truly honor the Williams centennial.
Douglas Taurel, as Doctor Cukrowicz, gives the weakest theatrical performance I have witnessed in quite some time: no energy, no intensity, no presence. Lacy J. Dunn, as Katherine, is just not up to this part: She was not in the least believable in this challenging (and central) role. Perhaps the director drew whatever performance she could out of these actors--who knows? But with all the abundantly talented actors in New York, why should audiences abide performances such as these?
And now for the added comedy. Carol Ann Foley, as goofy Sister Felicity (Katherine's escort for her afternoon outside of the loony bin), is attired in an archly outlandish nun's costume that could have been designed by Charles Ludum for his Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Sister Felicity is played for laughs, and I could imagine the late Nancy Kulp ("Miss Jane" in the Beverly Hillbillies) doing that role to the hilt. During Katherine's monologue, Sister Felicity stands silently stage right, suddenly very serious and obviously moved by Katherine's grisly story; her goofiness is gone, she is a picture of saintliness. Heather Lee Rogers, as Miss Foxhill, Mrs. Venable's abused secretary, is costumed in archetypical frump attire, and is ordered about and flustered, again for laughs. It is as if a casting director yelled out, "Alice Ghostly, yeah, get me Ghostly. You know, the fumbling relative in Bewitched who messes up the spells."
Why stop at just two out of place "comic" touches? How about going whole hog? Imagine what the Carol Burnett send-up sketch of the play might have been like (think Burnett's "Went with the Wind" and "Nora Desmond"): Carol Burnett as Katherine; Vicky Lawrence as Mrs. Venable; Tim Conway as Doctor Curowicz; Harvey Korman as George Holly; and special guest star Rita Moreno as Mrs. Holly.
Suddenly Last Summeris an intensely serious chamber drama which could work, unembellished, as a radio drama, with only Williams's words to carry it. Why futz with it? I suppose a contemporary director might think that modern audiences with short attention spans, unaccustomed to listening closely, need more than fine playwriting to be compelling theater.
After the play's conclusion, a Special Panel was presented, entitled Tenn at 100: Re-imagining the work of Tennessee Williams. Four panelists with stellar theater credentials, academic and otherwise, were on stage to pontificate about Williams. The first question dealt with the contemporary relevance of Williams. I waited to hear the answer by the first panelist, who proceeded to give a reasonable response. Alas, it was obvious that the quality of what they had just viewed would not be part of the discussion. That topic was a rhinoceros in the room, as far as I was concerned. What rhinoceros?
In closing: White Horse Theater Company's presentation of Suddenly Last Summer is worth seeing, if only for the fine and authentic performances of Elizabeth Bove, Lué McWilliams, and Haas Regen. - Jay Reisberg
Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, assistant to the founder of New York's Love Street Theatre, and bon vivant at large.