Chicago Theater Review: SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (Raven Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 9, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


The strangest thing about Suddenly Last Summer is that the main character is never seen. But, talked about for 90 minutes by two dangerously partisan women, he’s fully felt. So is the play’s dark discovery: “We all use each other –and that’s what we think of as love.”

Jason Gerace’s taut Raven Theatre revival turns Tennessee Williams’ 1958 one-act (originally coupled with “Something Unspoken” in Vieux Carre) into a poem that screams. Few plays so successfully sow doubt about their circumstances, only to build to a crescendo of undiluted horror, so unprocessed that the play must end immediately.

It fits the author’s bleak outlook on the human condition: “Man devours man in a metaphorical sense. He feeds upon his fellow creatures, without the excuse of animals. I use that metaphor to express my revulsion with this characteristic of man, the way people use each other without conscience … people devour each other.” Williams takes his heartless “nature red in tooth and claw” Darwinism to cannibalistic extremes. But the supple play is equally a cautionary tale against the toxic “enabling” of a tiger mom and the doomed devotion of a protective cousin.

Jonna Iwanicka’s sultry/smoky setting is the exterior of a mansion in New Orleans’ Garden District in the late summer and early fall of 1936. It’s the “hothouse” enclave of a control-freak matron, as pampered as was the son she spoiled. We’re present at a showdown between a mother and a niece over a bizarre death in Spain: “Suddenly last summer,” Sebastian Venable, a forty-something poet to whose memory both women lay claim and a possible human sacrifice, expired mysteriously on the similarly named Playa de San Sebastian of the Cabeza de Lobos resort on the Iberian Riviera.

Mrs. Violet Venable (Mary K. Nigohosian, implacably defensive) is a wealthy widow and mother of the disappeared gentleman. Desperate to shield her dead son from posthumous scandal, this rigid virago venerates him as a writer whose essence was his creativity. But, we learn, bad boy Sebastian did more than pen verse. Violet intends to bribe Dr. Cukrowicz (Wardell Julius Clark), an ambitious and not too scrupulous brain surgeon, into performing a lobotomy on her late husband’s niece Catherine Holly (like the one inflicted on Tennessee’s sister Rose, the basis for Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie). For her silence is literally golden.

Despite being committed to an asylum (like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire), Catherine (a magnificent Grayson Heyl) is “blabbing” all over the Crescent City about the ugly circumstances of her cousin’s death. She mustn’t, Violet vows, “smash” the reputation of a man who gave to God. Violet must be stopped from making insinuations about the late lad’s latent homosexuality and possible pedophilia. This stroke victim, a termagant of a dowager (reminiscent of Big Daddy in A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), is not the only one who wants Catherine silenced: So do Violet’s poor relations, Catherine’s venal brother George (a weaselly Andrew Rathgeber) and her hapless mom (an ineffectual Ann James). They crave the $50,000 each that Violet dangles before them.

Caught between dueling divas, the doctor seeks the truth through an imaginary injection. It seduces Catherine into spilling her story. These devastating details are symbolically prophesied by the mother’s allusion to our “primeval past and ostensibly civilized present.” Specifically, Violet refers to the “flesh-eating birds” that mother and son witnessed on the Encantadas, or Galápagos Islands, tearing apart baby turtles.

Hysterically but never histrionically, Catherine’s all-concluding confession curdles with accusations of “procurement” and a mob of starving urchins who break loose from a public beach. It dangerously skirts the swamps of melodrama (as the nervous laughter of the opening night audience revealed). Defiant to the end, a deranged Violet is dragged off stage, howling “Cut this hideous story from her brain!” Somehow, we sense that the doctor will not.

Hypocrisy, greed, sexual repression, a secret journal, and carnivorous love — it’s all packed into this potboiler (and exploded in the 1959 film version with Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Julián Ugarte as a visible Sebastian). Suddenly Last Summer doesn’t require or reward too much critical scrutiny: It exists for its final, terrible truth injection, a revelation so awful it’s the proverbial act that can’t be followed.

Gerace’s seven-person ensemble build Tennessee’s waking nightmare with conscientious zeal. Nigohosian’s dragon lady and Heyl’s anguished survivor all but cancel each other out like the Kilkenny cats. We’re left not sure who to believe. Given the stakes here, that’s just as well.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Suddenly Last Summer
Raven Theatre Company, 6157 N. Clark St. (at Granville)
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on June 17, 2018
for tickets, call 773.338.2177 or visit Raven Theatre

for more, visit Theatre in Chicago

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