Suddenly Last Summer
At the Raven Theatre by Dan Zeff
Chicago—“Suddenly Last Summer” is not a great Tennessee Williams play, but as a sensationalistic horror story it holds the stage. The splendid Raven Theatre revival grabs the viewer right down to its shocker of an ending.
The play opened off Broadway early in 1958, when Williams still had his writing chops. His next three plays were the hits “Sweet Bird of Youth,” “Period of Adjustment,” and “The Night of the Iguana” before his career tailspinned into permanent decline.
“Suddenly Last Summer” is a 90-minute one-act play set in Williams’s home territory, New Orleans. The only two characters on stage who matter are Violet Venable, a wealthy elderly widow, and Catherine Holly, an emotionally disturbed younger woman. There is a crucial third character, Sebastian Venable, whose life and death shape the story, Sebastian being Violet’s son and Catherine’s cousin.
The summer before the action begins, Sebastian died while on a holiday with Catherine in South America. There are teasing hints that Sebastian, clearly gay, met a bizarre and violent death at a South American resort with Catherine the only witness to his death. Catherine has outraged Violent with her public descriptions of Sebastian’s death. So Violet, who both idolized and manipulated her son, has called in a local doctor, insisting he lobotomize the women to expunge the memory of Sebastian’s death.
Back in New Orleans Catherine is placed in a mental institution at Violet’s expense. The play builds to the final scene when Catherine narrates what happened to Sebastian. As Catherine recounts Sebastian’s horrific fate there were gasps from the audience, who may have prepared themselves for grim revelations but nothing this appalling. After Catherine completes her dreadful narrative, the play quickly ends. What will happen to Violet Venable and Catherine Holly in their futures isn’t suggested, but it’s likely that neither woman will sleep soundly for the rest of their lives.
There are seven characters in the play, but our eyes are always on Violet and Catherine. Violet is the stereotype gorgon mother, suffocating her son with her obsessive love and domineering personality. Catherine is a frail emotional reed. She had been raped at a local dance some time in the past. That assault, combined with witnessing Sebastian’s violent death, has pushed Catherine to the psychological edge.
The main supporting character is the doctor that Violet Venable calls upon to surgically silence Catherine, in return for her endowing his medical foundation. Catherine’s mother and brother are inserted into the story mostly as comic filler.
“Suddenly Last Summer” contains some of Williams’s most vivid and poetic writing, like his description of the blazing hot sun and the white sand of the South American beach on Sebastian’s fatal day. Or the chilling description of newly hatched sea turtles desperately trying to crawl from the beach to the water before they were devoured by sea birds. Or the pack of impoverished and naked street urchins who were the nightmarish agents of Sebastian’s death.
Williams’s sizzling writing demands a perfect pitch performance by the actress playing Catherine. The performer must sustain an arc of emotional tension from her first appearance to the stunning final moments. The Raven has found its Catherine in Grayson Heyl, who manages to remain in a constantly emotional fraught state without turning the character into a shrill hysteric. Did Catherine really see what she tells us she saw or is her story the grotesque hallucination of a broken mind? In any case, we are treated to a tremendously resourceful performance of an enormously challenging role.
Mary K. Nigohosian makes Violet Venable’s emotional bully of a mother both hateful and riveting, even though it’s basically a one-note character built on nastiness and self-delusion. This is a woman you wouldn’t want to have for an enemy, yet she makes perversely entertaining company.
Among the supporting actors, Ann James is really good as Catherine’s mother, a pathetic woman caught in the crossfire between Violet and Catherine. Andrew Rathberger plays her son, Wardell Julius Clark plays the doctor. Song Marshall a Venable servant and Ayanna Bria Bakari plays Catherine’s keeper from the mental hospital.
Jason Gerace does a noble job of orchestrating the production, blending in bits of comedy to leaven the rising tension. Gerace’s work with Heyl and Nigohosian is exemplary. It would be interesting to see him take a crack at a top-of-the-line Williams drama. But I do wonder at the final moments of the play, turned into an almost farcical bit of physical frenzy not specified in the script.
Joanna Iwanica designed the hothouse garden setting, Brittany Dee Bodley the costumes, Claire Chrzan the lighting, and Christopher Kriz the sound (and original music). Thanks to dialect coach Kathy Logelin, the deep South accents are both authentic sounding and understandable
“Suddenly Last Summer” doesn’t reach the heights of “A Streetcar Named Desire” or “Cat on a Hot in Roof” but it contains some of Williams’s most evocative writing. I don’t recall seeing Grayson Heyl before but on the evidence of her work in this show, she is the real deal. Is there a Blanche Dubois in her theatrical future? I’d see it in a heartbeat.