SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER is a Scorching Slow Burn at Epic Theatre Company
Summer's heat can sometimes sneak up on you, as the days get longer and the sun seems to burn brighter and higher in the sky each day, the temperature rising until it becomes stifling, sweltering. Suddenly Last Summer, a one-act play by Tennessee Williams that kicks off the 2020 season for Epic Theatre Company, also sneaks up on you, raising its own temperature ever so slightly during it's run time, until it boils over into the final shocking revelations of the final moments.
Williams' play, which premiered off-Broadway in 1958, has had its share of controversies and commentary around some of its themes, especially surrounding the movie adaptation, featuring Elizabeth Taylor, which appeared in 1959. At the center of the story are two women, Miss Venable and her niece, Catherine Holly. When we meet the older of the two, an elderly southern belle and socialite who currently spends her days lounging around her estate in New Orleans, she is distressed about the death of her son, Sebastian, during the previous summer. As she speaks with Dr. Cukrowicz, who practices at the local psychiatric hospital, Miss Venable extols the virtues of her son, a poet with whom she lived a life of globe-trotting luxury.
Desperate to preserve her son's virtue and honor, she hopes the good doctor will help protect that reputation by dealing with the person who could ruin everything, her niece Catherine. It was Catherine who traveled with Sebastian the previous summer and was with her son when he died. Catherine's stories about the incident and what occurred have already caused extreme consternation among the family and led the girl to be placed in the care of a mental institution. Not satisfied with the results from that, Miss Venable now hopes the doctor will take things one step further by giving the girl a lobotomy, which he refuses to do until hearing the full story of what happened, from Catherine herself. It's that story, the stunning turn it takes, and how that turn impacts those involved, that give this excellent play its undeniable power.
Williams lets that story unfold at a leisurely pace, allowing what they are hearing to wrap around and envelop the audience. He gives the words a chance to land and register, so that his meaning can be fully grasped. At least for the two main characters, this also gives them room to breathe, to become fully developed and do so in an unhurried and organic way. It also allows for various layers and nuances to unfold, with each of the two women appearing as multifaceted and complex humans, rather than the stereotypes or caricatures they could be. Some of the supporting characters are less so and do appear, at least in this production, as more shallow and stereotypical. They are important to the story at some times but only set dressing at others, but it doesn't really detract from the overall experience since this play really belongs to the two female leads.
Director Geoff Leatham has perfectly cast those two leads, but more on that in a moment. As a whole, Leatham has done an excellent job here, creating some gorgeous stage pictures and fantastic moments of intensity. His hand is appropriately light as he lets the words and the actors do the heavy lifting, keeping things from ever feeling forced or unnatural. It's a play with a lot of talking and long monologues, but Leatham never allows any of that to become dull or boring, always keeping the energy and intensity at a high level.
He does that, of course, in concert with actors, including Betsy Rinaldi as Catherine and Becky Minard as Miss Venable. Both of these supremely talented actresses give outstanding performances, raising their characters far above the cliché stereotypes they could have been.
At first, Minard's Miss Venable seems like a kind, lovely, old-school southern belle who loved her son and just wants to preserve his good reputation. What we find out about both her and her son is far more dark and sinister, but Minard never twirls her figurative moustache or chews the scenery as we find out just what lurks in Miss Venable's heart, always grounding her behavior in real, believable, and relatable emotions and objectives. Similarly, Rinaldi never takes the path of least resistance in her portrayal of Catherine. It's a fully realized performance that makes one believe every word she says when describing the fateful events of the previous summer. She also makes the audience sympathize with and root for Catherine, wanting to believe her, in part because the acting by Rinaldi is so believable.
Alvaro Beltran also does a very nice job as Dr. Cukrowicz, brought in by Miss Venable to take Catherine down a very dark path. Beltran presents a version of the doctor that is much more kind and sympathetic than he could be played, which adds a nice counterpoint to the venom and spite of Miss Venable. As Catherine's mother, Michelle Mania presents a excellent portrait of worry, concern, and at-her-wits-end nervousness, although she's never asked to do much else. Nick D'Amico is serviceable as George, Catherine's brother, but he's not given much to do, other than seem a bit smarmy, sleazy, and detestable, though it's a credit to D'Amico for creating a committed portrayal of those qualities. Getting the least to do are Carolyn Coughlin as Miss Foxhill, who works for Miss Venable, and Paula Glen as Sister Felicity, caretaker of Catherine at the asylum where she currently resides. Make no mistake, both actresses do a very nice job, it's just a case of their characters not being given much to do or chance to become fully fleshed out or developed.
As our world becomes even more divided between the haves and have-nots, this play's themes of class and social standing have become even more relevant. Along with those themes are other relevant ideas surrounding identity, sexuality, and who we say or pretend we are versus who we actually are. Which brings up the perhaps most central idea of truth. What is the truth? Who should we believe when they say their story is the truth? And what does it mean if we decide to accept it? Like the stifling heat of a summer heat wave, that truth, whether we want to accept it or not, can sometimes be impossible to escape.