BWW Reviews: Uprooted Theatre Says Goodbye with Riveting SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER
In a fitting finale to their grand six years of acting, directing, educating and producing together, Uprooted Theatre staged Tennessee Williams' riveting Suddenly Last Summer at Next Act Theatre under the direction of company Co-Founder Dennis F. Johnson. Marti Gobel, also a Co-Founder, appeared playing the playwright's New Orleans society woman Violet Venable while also creating backstage as costume, set and scenic designer. A formidable challenge for any actor cast as Williams's commanding matriarch grieving from the death of her son, Sebastian.
Viewed as one of Williams's most provocative plays, Suddenly Last Summer can be believed as semi-autobiographical for the award-winning playwright, in his story where Violet's niece Catharine, an outstanding Sola Thompson, witnessed how Sebastian died oversees on a summer when Violet experienced a stroke and was unable to travel with her son. Violet usually traveled with Sebastian to Europe, encouraging his poetry until suddenly that last summer Sebastian died under the care of Catharine.
Uprooted's lush set resembles a beautiful tropical garden filled with venus fly traps, roses fruit, white wicker similar to a well manicured jungle where Williams' characters appear to be captive. A truism easily believed for the ailing Violet and recently released from St. Mary's mental institution, Catharine. Outraged by Catharine's assertions on Sebastian's death, Violet enlists Dr. Cukrowicz, a composed Marques Causey, who supports using the new technique, lobotomies, to treat mental behaviors uncontrolled by medication, a condition Violet proposes for Catharine, to give her niece "peace."
William's poetic language leaps from the stage in Uprooted's intense, no intermission production, a joy to listen to when spoken by these actors under Johnson's direction. Gobel radiates charm before releasing her cunning and inhabits Violet's character. Williams created strong women roles and Suddenly Last Summer presents two incredible performances in this Uprooted production, which Gobel and Thompson uphold. Causey's polite and well spoken Doctor walks the fine line between the two women becoming more sympathetic to Catharine in spite of Violet's generous offer to support his lobotomy research if he treats her niece.
Uprooted, an all African-American Milwaukee theatre company, cast the Southern play non-traditionally, and left Williams's text exactly as written. Gobel, who researched the play from a theatrical and philosophical perspective, states that in 1936 New Orleans the city's prestigious Garden District hosted numerous African American families who lived as well, or perhaps better, than Violet Venable, traveling through Europe and enjoying The Ritz Hotels. While Williams references "blondes" several times in the play, the word carries fresh meaning because "blonde" might refer to a lighter skin color within any ethnicity. Many ethnicities describe their own cultural differences by the various skin colors inherent to one particular ethnic group.
In this richly acted and produced play, with actors of any skin color, Williams' themes continually ignite tension: homosexuality, incest, procuring young boys, and Sebastian's tortuous death cause controversy today, as well as in the 1930's. While lobotomies have been set aside as prevalent mental health treatments, mental illnesses or health issues remain less researched and understood almost 85 years later.
Despite the loss of the ambitious theater company to Milwaukee arts scene, their presence remains. Gobel has been cast several times in the role of Mrs. Cratchit in Milwaukee Rep's long tradition of producing the seasonal A Christmas Carol and traveled to South Africa with Renaissance Theaterworks (RTW) to produce the one woman show Neat, another play centered around a beloved family member suffering a mental health challenge. In the season ahead, Gobel will direct the RTW production he Ballad of Emmett Till and continues her personal career along with Johnson.
While Milwaukee grieves this loss, great strides have been made in non-traditional or integrated casting throughout the city. This good bye to Uprooted Theatre will eventually transform into new legacies for Johnson, Thompson, Raven Dockery, Mara McGhee, Derrion Brown and Freedom Gobel, the entire cast of Suddenly Last Summer. The up and coming performers join a cadre of actors, directors, and stage technicians Uprooted has encouraged throughou their past six years..
Uprooted Theatre presents Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams at Next Act Theatre, 225 South Water Street through May 24. In June, Little Shop of Horrors begins performances by Mara McGhee. For information or tickets, please visit www.nexttact.org.