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Review: SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER AND TALK TO ME LIKE THE RAIN AND LET ME LISTEN at Avant Bard Theatre

Absorbing, challenging and innovative theatre!

Review: SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER AND TALK TO ME LIKE THE RAIN AND LET ME LISTEN at Avant Bard Theatre
Sara Barker and Matt Sparacino in the Avant Bard Theatre production of
Suddenly Last Summer.
Photo by DJ Corey Photography

Suddenly Last Summer a terrible memory was embedded in the mind of a woman, and she must now face an assault on her brain. Her cousin, the fastidious poet Sebastian, was spending a summer to write what was to be his last poem------but I am getting ahead of myself!

In this fascinating one-act play by Tennessee Williams, one must endure greedy in-laws, a vengeful and possessive Mother, and a savage indictment about nature itself to finally get to the shattering conclusion and catharsis. In the hands of Tennessee Williams and the Avant Bard Theatre (Avant Bard), however, these unsettling elements all form a complete drama, and I was held entranced by the sheer vitality of the writing and the superb performances of the actors assembled here.

Director Christopher Henley has radically deconstructed this powerful play so that the audience is presented a much more immersive and creatively designed play than usual. The theatre space is very open with several large panels covered in white (Set Design by David Ghatan) that are utilized in highly creative ways. Several of the scenes are played at the juxtaposition of two seating areas so that the audience can be more actively involved in the drama.

Lighting and Projections designer Hailey LaRoe transforms the garden district courtyard and garden of the possessive Mrs. Venable into a veritable hot house jungle of cacophony and tropical heat by showing birds flying and swooping down (on the translucent white panels). Sound Designer Clay Teunis should be commended for the threatening and terrifying sound effects. Costume Designer Anna Marquardt did a superior job.

Director Henley garners unusually distinct characterizations from his cast ----especially from Cam Magee as Mrs. Venable, Miss Kitty as Miss Foxhill and Matt Sparacino as Doctor Cukrowicz.

Often, Mrs.Venable is portrayed as merely icy and haughty and speaks in glacial tones, but Cam Magee endows the character with more emotional variegation and, thus, one can sympathize with her motivations a bit more. Ms. Magee's long monologue about the sea turtles hatching their eggs and being attacked was mesmerizing. Ms. Magee's characterization came from a steely inner core.

The character of Ms. Foxhill, (who is the secretary/personal assistant of Mrs. Venable) is portrayed in an intriguingly direct and multi-layered interpretation which is very refreshing. Miss Kitty's acting in this role adds so much dimension to the play and is a pleasant change from the usual reserved and meek manner in which it is usually played.

The character of Doctor Cukrowicz is often played in a very stolid and somber manner, but actor Matt Sparacino endows his character with a bit of a detached and ironic air that works well. I never found the character of Cukrowicz one of Williams' best, but Mr. Sparacino does wonders with the part making him neither holier than thou or a mere opportunist.

Sara Barker portrays the central character, Catharine Holly, with passion and refined technique. Ms. Barker commands the stage with a strong presence. The angst, tremulousness and rebelliousness of the character were all present, but Ms. Barker simply needs to modulate a bit of her delivery so that every word of Williams' text can be heard. (Ms. Barker also has a fine Southern accent that deserves to be heard in every word). Ms. Barker's monologue about the Mardi Gras ball was beautifully delivered and the long concluding remembrances of the terrible day that occurred "suddenly last summer" were full of culminating force and catharsis.

Megan Morgan as Mrs. Holly, Jonathan Del Palmer as George Holly, and Christine Hirrell as Sister Felicity all gave fine supporting performances.

I have always thought that this one-act play's compression packed a dramatic punch better than the popular 1959 film, as the Joseph Mankiewicz film with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift added too many scenes and subplots.

This play's central conceit (cannibalism) can be a bit of a strained metaphor in my opinion but Tennessee Williams himself has said that he uses the extreme metaphor of this play to show the way people use each other without conscience (people devour each other).

A specialized play has become less so, thanks to the directorial deconstruction of the play by the talented Christopher Henley. The play has been given extra emotional heft and complexity and more eager audiences should be attracted to this challenging drama.

Review: SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER AND TALK TO ME LIKE THE RAIN AND LET ME LISTEN at Avant Bard Theatre
Miss Kitty and Jonathan Del Palmer in the Avant Bard Theatre production of
Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen.
Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Prior to the presentation of Suddenly Last Summer there was a remarkably interesting production of the prologue of another Williams' short play Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen.

Though I was not acquainted with what was billed as the prologue to the Tennessee Williams play Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen, I was moved by the intimacy and "no -holds barred" self-reverie and confessional quality of the piece.

Two unnamed characters -a man (Jonathan Del Palmer) and a woman (Miss Kitty) live in a cold water flat on the lower east side of Manhattan. Their relationship seems to consist of simply being there for each other as they both reflect on their circumstances through striving to reach out to each other in their brokenness and isolation.

As the character of Del Palmer listens, the character of Ms. Kitty delivers an extended monologue of listening to the rain and the deep sense of her body becoming almost transparent as to practically disappear ----. This monologue is written in such an elusive and "stream of consciousness" yet penetrating style that it is pointless to describe in a review. Suffice it to say that its power reminded me of the now legendary long monologue delivered by Laurie Metcalf as Darlene in the legendary production of Balm in Gilead by Lanford Wilson (a playwright highly influenced by Williams). Miss Kitty almost achieves this power in this monologue.

Research has informed me that the play is considered an actor's field day in that there are long absorbing monologues and a quality of desperation and being cut off from other people throughout. I heartily agree with this analysis. This is a true mood piece and it reminded me of the quality of Ingmar Bergman's writing and style.

More texture was added to the play as the excellent actor Miss Kitty sang the classic songs "Lover, Come Back to Me" and "Good Morning Heartache". The delivery of these songs luckily added to the character of the woman and did not become full performance pieces.

A cityscape and rain falling is projected on the panels surrounding the stage (kudos to Hailey LaRoe) to add to the atmospheric effect.

Kudos to the Avant Bard Theatre and Director Christopher Henley for the showcasing of two lesser-known Tennessee Williams plays. Absorbing, challenging and innovative theatre!

Running time: Two and one-half hours with a 15-minute intermission

Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen and Suddenly Last Summer runs through June 18,2022 at the Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two. The Gunston Arts Center is located at 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, Va., 22206. For tickets, click here.



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