Friday, September 2, 2011

Theater Review: Suddenly Last Summer -- Westport


Lee Aaron Rosen & Annalee Jefferies - photo by T. Charles Erickson
A Treacherous Jungle Full of Primal Emotion, but Not Rooted in a Lot of Reality
By Lauren Yarger
It’s a jungle out there – and also in a garden where family members who personify immorality and desire grown wild threaten to choke out any root of decency that might be found at a 1930s New Orleans home in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer playing at Westport Country Playhouse.

There in the garden, fabulously designed by Narelle Sissons and brilliantly lighted by Matthew Richards, a gigantic Venus fly trap, a metaphor for the primal destructive forces that killed its owner, Sebastian, is preserved in loving memory by his ailing mother, Mrs. Venable (Annalee Jeffries), who rules her jungle from the throne of a wheel-chair. She threatens to spring a death trap of her own making on niece, Catharine Holly (Liv Rooth), unless the girl changes her shocking eye-witness account of how Sebastian died.
Dependent on the good graces of wealthy Mrs. Venable, Catharine’s mother, Mrs. Holly (Charlotte Maier), and brother, George (Ryan Garbayo), fear they will lose a much-needed inheritance from Sebastian if the will gets tied up in probate. They therefore urge Catharine to change her story when she arrives at the family manse in the company of Sister Felicity (Tina Stafford), a sort of nun/guard from the private mental institution where the poor girl has been imprisoned since Sebastian's death.
With the help of Dr. Cukrowicz (Lee Aaron Rosen), a neurologist in need of funds for a research grant, Mrs. Venable threatens to send Catheaine to his public-run institution where she will be given a lobotomy if she doesn’t stop spreading the reputation-damaging story about her son.

Under truth serum, Catharine reveals the details of just what happened last summer when Sebastian died violently on a beach where they were vacationing. (Period costumes are designed by Ilona Somogyi; Fitz Patton, original music and sound design, provides outdoor noises and a raging rainstorm reminiscent of Hurricane Irene which unofficially postponed Suddenly Last Summer’s opening night from Saturday to Tuesday night).
Under the direction of David Kennedy, the Playhouse’s associate artistic director, Jeffries gives a strong performance as the domineering mother who, after suffering a stroke,is no longer useful to the son with whom she was inappropriately obsessed. Her hatred for Catharine, who replaced her as a procurer of young boys for sex with Sebastian, is palpable. Rooth blooms nicely from the confused girl, afraid to tell the truth, to a hothouse flower with no more inhibitions under the doctor’s drug. Susan Bennett also is noteworthy in the minor role of Mrs. Venable’s beleaguered assistant Miss Foxhill.
Kennedy makes some odd choices, like freezing characters on their way out of a scene to remain onstage during a conversation between others for no apparent reason. Perhaps he is trying to give some texture to Williams’ play, which isn’t one of his best. The doctor’s character is very underdeveloped, for example, and his constant, annoying questions serve only as springboards for a lot of long-winded, lyrical soliloquies which Williams and the actresses playing his messed up women love, but which seldom are used by people in real conversation.
Because the ideas of homosexuality and cannibalism were shocking and taboo when the play premiered in 1958, some of the canopy cloaking the tangle of emotion is impenetrable. The work has been interpreted as everything from a gathering of a bunch of really unpleasant people to self-loathing and angst on the part of the playwright.  
Even with theater goers more enlightened in 2011, we’re still not sure exactly what took place. Why would seeing a woman in a wet, transparent bathing suit entice young boys to have homosexual relations with Sebastian, for instance? What exactly happened to Catherine at the Mardi Gras ball? And could Catherine’s interpretation of Sebastian’s demise be the result of seeing sexual acts she never had witnessed before or didn’t understand? That vine might reach more to reality than cannibalism, the mythological metaphors of which make for good literature, but not necessarily for realistic drama. 
Suddenly Last Summer runs through Sept. 10 at the Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. For tickets and information call 203-227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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