Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer is a play about pride, greed, truth, murder, cannibalism, mental illness, homosexuality, and family, among other things. Williams perhaps lets himself come a little more to the surface in this play than his other most popular plays, more like some of the early one-acts and his late plays. It is now being given a beautiful and wrenching production by the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, given a thoughtful and sure direction by Tim Ocel.
A long one-act, two extended monologues make up the bulk of the play. Mrs. Violet Venable, an elderly socialite widow from a prominent family, delivers the first monologue in her mansion of appropriately southern Gothic style in the fashionable Garden District of New Orleans, in a room referred to as her son Sebatian’s jungle garden with “violent colors” and noises of “beasts, serpents, and birds…of savage nature,” an excess fortunately underplayed in James Wolk’s set and Philip Evans’ sound design. Mrs. Venable is meeting with a young neurosurgeon about one of his patients, her niece Catherine Holly. Mrs. Venable has previously always accompanied her son Sebastian, a poet so identified by himself and his mother (by any others we do not know), on a holiday during which he wrote a poem, one poem each year, carefully preserved by his mother. But on the holiday the previous year, Mrs. Venable was unable to join Sebastian because of a stroke or other physical impairment. Instead, Catherine was invited to join him. But no poem was written, and Sebastian died. The cause of his death is the reason for Mrs. Venable’s meeting with the doctor. Catherine tells a grotesque tale of Sebastian’s murder by a mob of starving children he had cultivated on the beach, who even devoured his flesh. So we have Sebastian as Saint Sebastian the gay icon, Orpheus the mythic poet torn apart by angry maenads because he had become a pederast and ignored women, and even Christ, whose flesh we devour. Mrs. Venable will have none of this. Catheriine’s story, implying Sebastian’s homosexuality, must be silenced. And the doctor can silence Catherine and bring her peace so she is no longer driven to repeat this fantasy she has created, destroying the perfect reputation of Mrs. Venable’s son Sebastian. The doctor is to perform a frontal lobotomy on Catherine. Mrs. Venable also suggests she might make a generous donation to the doctor’s psychiatric research institute. Catherine is then brought from St. Mary’s, a private mental asylum, where Mrs. Venable has been keeping her, accompanied by a nun, and by Catherine’s mother, the sister of Mrs. Venable’s late husband, and her son, Catherine’s brother. They also have a financial interest in silencing Catherine; Mrs. Venable is keeping Sebastian’s will in probate with a large sum for them in the will. Catherine is there to tell the doctor her story. And she does, aided by an injection from the doctor. First she tells them Sebastian’s revelation of the nature of God. It is the annual birth on the beach of baby sea turtles and their race from their eggs to the safety of the sea before they are caught, torn open, and devoured by hovering birds waiting for the shells to crack open. Such is our life, devouring one another. And Sebastian was, like the baby turtles, attacked by a flock of boys who killed and devoured him. Lisa Tejero is brilliant as Mrs. Venable, ever the gracious Southern lady, carefully measuring her steps as she guides the afternoon, until she snaps at the end of Catherine’s story. Naima Randolph’s Catherine faces the forces arrayed against her—her aunt, her mother, her brother—stepping carefully and then paying what she owes Sebastian by telling the complete, nasty, brutal truth. She has a certain purity about her that is both a defense and an attack. Bradley Tejeda’s doctor is seeking the truth—maybe—and must be impartial and unemotional, but he does show flickers of sympathy for Catherine at moments. I am curious as to why director Ocel has the doctor deliver his final lines to an empty room on stage and to the audience. As Catherine’s mother, Rengin Altay is very uncomfortable. Harrison Farmer as her son George wants that money and comes down hard on Catherine until her story changes him radically, as perhaps another brother wishes he might have done. Bethany Barr scurries about almost unrecognizably as Mrs. Venable’s housekeeper and maid of all services. Iesha Edwards is very firm with Catherine—no cigarettes—as Sister Felicity, who accompanies her from the hospital.
Make note of the care with which Dottie Marshall Englis fits the costumes to the characters. Matthew McCarthy’s lighting makes a significant contribution to the mood of the Garden District mansion. Abby Pastorello has a smart eye as the props artisan. Henry Palkes has composed music for the production, always a welcome addition. Ethan Dudenhoeffer is the Production Manager, Brian Macke the Technical Director, J. Myles Hesse the Production Stage Manager, and Carrie Houk the Producer.
However troubling elements of a play may be, when they should be, I am grateful to find such satisfaction in a production as I found in the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis’s Suddenly Last Summer.
Photo by Suzy Gorman