BWW Review: SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER at Avant Bard Theatre
Tennessee Williams, in his lifetime, wrote more than 70 one-act plays - some just sketches, many that went unpublished until after his death in 1983 at 71.
"The peak of my virtuosity was in the one- act plays," Williams once wrote, in a 1950 letter to Elia Kazan. "Some of which are like firecrackers on a rope."
When it was originally staged off-Broadway in 1958, it was short enough to be paired with "Something Unspoken" in a double bill titled "Garden District."
An ambitious double bill by the Avant Bard Theatre at the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington instead prefaces "Suddenly Last Summer" with the 1953 "Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen."
Set far away from New Orleans' Garden District, in New York's Hell's Kitchen, it's essentially a pair of monologues from a down and out couple - a man just awakening after a raucous party that found him lying naked in a bathtub of ice and Miller Lite, the other yearning to get out of the city and live out her life alone and anonymous in some coastal hotel.
It's just an eyeblink of a play, but it's backloaded with three Billie Holiday songs, "Lover Man, (Oh Where Can You Be)?" "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone," and "Good Morning Heartache," for which a performer named Miss Kitty gives a pretty throaty rendition for someone who has only drank water for days.
The pasty Erik Harrison, for his part, may be the most clean-cut dissolute drunk in a Williams play. He seems as amazed by the details of his lost evening as we are by the fact he can recall them at all.
His appearance may be explained by the fact that both are in the longer play when it appears after an intermission. He's a Southern cousin looking to cash in after a mysterious death; she's a maid who shamelessly tries to steal every scene she's in.
Both are meant to take a back seat to the central players led by a terrific Cam Magee.
Perhaps it is Williams' writing, heavy on emotion and the Southern colloquialisms, that sometimes results in overacting but Magee gives a master class on keeping just the right tone - stern, tart, proud and full of cutting remarks as she drives to get what she wants.
The task at hand for the powerful and powerfully self-deluded Southern matriarch is to protect the reputation of her grown son Sebastian, who died under mysterious circumstances during a summer in Spain.
She'd usually accompany her beloved son, but instead it was cousin Catharine (Sara Barker) who joined him and has the ugly truth of his demise. Intent on keeping her wild story under wraps, the overbearing mother first sticks Catharine in a mental hospital and then calls in a doctor (Matthew Sparacino) to see if he'll "cut this hideous story from her brain" through lobotomy in exchange for a hefty check.
The doctor administers a truth serum to get the story, leading to the shocking, climactic explanation.
In its day, the notion that Sebastian was gay was a large part of the shock that censors had to keep out of the movie. So today that revelation is thankfully less charged than the fact he procured children. Either way, the description of cannibalistic retribution by his victims is still as shocking.
Barker is transfixing as she unfolds the emotional story. While at first she seems uneven and maybe over the top (we can blame her character's heavy medication), she eventually sharpens her focus to nail the harrowing tale - making her a great counterpoint to Magee (who once played the Catharine role back at Catholic University) whose Mrs. Venable can only sit in her wheelchair and seethe.
"Suddenly Last Summer" is a treat to see theatrically, especially in the close quarters of the Gunston Arts Center's Theatre Two, where set designer David Ghatan has devised a nifty set that seems appropriately claustrophobic for the first play and unfolds to the expansive patio of the main piece, with lighting director Ian Claar adding greens of the jungle-like surroundings.
Sound designer Clay Teunis is a bit heavy on the loud, startling bird noises in the garden; maybe they were intended to punctuate the action, or maybe I was sitting too close to the speaker (in the first play, it's loud street noise occasionally bleating through).
Director Christopher Henley has an affinity for Williams, and has directed a handful of his plays for Avant Bard back when it was known as the Washington Shakespeare Company and he was artistic director.
He can bring the best out of aces like Magee and Barker, and just the right tone from supporting cast members like Megan Morgan (as Catharine's mother) and Christine Hirrel (as her nurse), whose subtleties far outweigh the excesses of Miss Kitty as Mrs. Venable's maid and assistant.
Sparacino's doctor is a steadying force amid the Southern Gothic heat and madness, but the actor may have gone beyond the call of duty in dyeing his hair blond for the occasion to match Williams' description, though it ends up being more distracting than anything else.
Running time: About one hour and 40 minutes with one intermission.
"Suddenly Last Summer" and "Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen" play through April 5 at Gunston Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, Va. For tickets, call 703-418-4808 or online.