BWW Reviews: Truth Is Inconvenient, Dangerous in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER at Shaking the Tree

By: Apr. 07, 2015

As soon as you walk into the Shaking the Tree theatre, you are in the affluent Garden District of New Orleans, the setting for Tennessee Williams's SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER. Having just spent some time in New Orleans, I was struck by how perfectly the set (by set designer and director Samantha Van Der Merwe) captured the feel - of both decadence and decay - that defines the city. The mansions in this district have large, lush gardens that as a visitor you can only catch a glimpse of from the other side of a fence. These gardens undoubtedly hold their share of devastating secrets, like the one at the heart of this play.

SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER proves that "the truth will out," no matter how much you fight against it. The play centers on a character who exists only as a memory: Sebastian Venable, a poet who met a violent and horrible death the previous summer while on vacation with his cousin Catherine (played by Beth Thompson). Sebastian's mother, Violet (Jacklyn Maddux) refuses to believe the truth about her son's death, as that would entail her admitting that her son was not the chaste young gentleman she wanted to believe. So as not to be tormented by the inconvenient truth, she has arranged for Dr. Cukrowicz (Matthew Kerrigan), a pioneer of the frontal lobotomy, to meet Catherine and hear her story.

The play is really about struggles we all encounter: between the truth and what we want to believe, between doing what's right and doing what's in our own self-interest. Every character has a reason to deny what really happened - Violet faces psychological and potentially social ruin, Catherine's mother (the excellent Luisa Sermol) and brother (Steve Vanderzee) face financial hardship, Dr. Cukrowicz faces the possibility of losing funding for his research, and Catherine faces the prospect of losing herself to the miracles of what was then modern psychiatry. What would you do?

The cast is excellent. Jacklyn Maddux as Violet is a steamroller, even when she is being pushed in a wheelchair. Beth Thompson's Catherine is a woman who's been through it all and has nothing left to lose. In Matthew Kerrigan's doctor (and Sebastian in the memory sequences), we see the sometimes subtle, sometimes uncontrollable, forms our internal struggles can take. I also loved Rebecca Ridenour as Violet's poor servant Miss Foxhill, who just can't do anything right.

SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER is pretty relentlessly intense. But Van Der Merwe finds ways to vary the pace and bring out some humor, so even 90 minutes with no intermission, while intense, is not completely exhausting. I'm sure I wasn't the only one wishing for an Act 2.

SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER runs through May 2. For tickets, visit or call the box office at (503) 235-0635.

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