Suddenly Last Summer may be one of Tennessee Williams’ strangest plays. If you’re a fan of old movies, you may recall the 1959 star-studded film version with Elizabeth Taylor (in her infamous wet white swimming suit), Katharine Hepburn, Mercedes McCambridge and Montgomery Clift. This dark drama features unspoken homosexual desire, lobotomy, and cannibalism, so as you might assume, the shocking work drew sharp criticism. But even though both this stage play and the subsequent motion picture attracted huge audiences, it remains the most infrequently produced of the playwright’s major works.
Like the rare and exotic plants in its hothouse setting, this 90-minute one-act play requires special care and attention. Director Doug Long and his Village Players cast are certainly up to the challenge of making this harrowing morality tale come alive. Though the drama could easily become a circus sideshow, the strong performances effectively sell its overheated purple prose. The fascinating production never lags, though it’s performed without an intermission.
Suddenly Last Summer is like a crash course in Tennessee Williams. A dominating dowager seeks to sanitize the image of her dead poet son who was apparently eaten alive by a pack of Third World teenage cannibals the previous summer.
Set in New Orleans, the drama pits two women against each other in a heated contest for control of the truth about the violent death of the man they both loved and mourn. One is his aging mother, Mrs. Violet Venable, a former beauty, now an invalid due to a stroke she denies having. She had previously traveled the globe with her son, Sebastian. Now Violet seeks to cleanse his memory, employing her vast riches to establish her own chaste spin on what happened. All she ever wants to talk about is her son, except at 5 p.m. when it’s time for her daiquiri.
The wealthy, manipulative Violet (Ellen Peace) has summoned a handsome young psychiatrist to lobotomize her mental patient niece Catherine because the girl is spreading scandalous rumors about the mysterious murder of her homosexual son the previous summer. Of course, the dreaded “h” word is never mentioned. This is the ’50s, mind you, so Williams constructs an overheated Gothic melodrama activated by the “love that dared never speak its name.”
Peace is very impressive as the domineering mother whose twisted passion drives her every moment. She’s imperious, ferocious, and now impaired, yet she’s still flirtatious; it’s easy to accept her serving as bait to catch young boys for her son.
As the morally ambivalent doctor, Don Markus (who resembles a young James Brolin) is caught in a moral dilemma between the two women as they fight a battle over the control of reality. Mrs. Venable is determined to keep the psychologically fragile young woman from telling her story. To receive a substantial bequest, all the psychiatrist must do is lobotomize the troubled niece.
As Catherine Holly, Sarah Sapperstein shoulders a heavy burden. From the time she witnessed her cousin’s death, she’s been locked away in a mental institution to keep her quiet. The last half of the show-the big revelation-is hers. Facing the terrifying threat of a lobotomy and struggling like so many of Williams’ heroines for her sanity and her survival, Sapperstein’s character is convincingly haunted by the truth. Finally Catherine is drugged with a truth serum and begins spilling her guts about what happened in Cabeza de Lobo (“Wolf’s Head”). Like so many of Williams’ women, she has embraced her sexuality and is punished for it.
The autobiographical parallels between the unseen Sebastian Venable and playwright Williams in the ’50s are obvious, such as his destructive lifestyle, his popping of “little white pills,” his extreme dread of aging, his nonstop jet-set decadence, his overbearing mother, and his pattern of sexual exploitation of younger “rough trade” partners.
“Yes,” Catherine says at one point, “we all use each other and that’s what we think of as love.”
Williams felt enormously guilty and was devoted to his own sister Rose who’d been lobotomized and spent her life in an institution.
Though its climactic revelations perhaps take too long to be all that shocking to us today, the long monologues by both Sapperstein and Peace are powerfully delivered and highly dramatic.
John List’s sound design provides a continually ominous background track of screeching gulls and other sounds from nature.
Rosemary Sher is assistant director and Marcus Jackson is stage manager. Patty Sullivan designed the costumes and Scott Lee Heckman is the artistic designer. Though the stage is intimate in Village Players’ Black Box performance space, a few artificial tropical plants and some wicker furniture effectively suggest the conservatory setting.
Doug Deuchler is a retired teacher/school librarian who, when he isn’t reviewing local theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent and author of several books about Oak Park and surrounding communities.