Wednesday, June 12, 2019

review - SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER: SUMMER OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS - Mesa Encore Theatre

Chris Fidler, Susanne Lamb, and Alexandra Palmatier
photo by Stephanie Tippi Hart
by Carolyn Thomas

An actor showcase featuring Tennessee Williams' monologues paired with Williams' one act play, Suddenly Last Summer, provide an evening of intrigue at Mesa Encore Theatre's Black Box. The production elements are executed skillfully in a theatre-in-the-round style, and the actors provide fulfilling and engaging performances throughout the production, and though Tennessee Williams' play provides an engaging story rich with vivid imagery and deep metaphors, it's very much a product of the time period in which it was written, for better or for worse.

Suddenly Last Summer tells the story of Violet Venable, an affluent elderly woman grieving the loss of her son to a visiting Doctor Cukrowicz. She praises her late son, and reveals that she blames his death on his troubled young cousin, Catherine Holly, who Violet believes is in need of a lobotomy due to the appalling story she spins of her son's death.

To talk about Suddenly Last Summer, it's difficult (and a disservice) to separate the play from the context in which it was written. Perhaps it's best described in the words of Elia Kazan, who directed the film version of Streetcar Named Desire, who said of Williams, "Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life." Suddenly Last Summer opened Off-Broadway in 1958, and a film adaptation was released the very next year. It came after his most notable successes, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by several years.

The script provides visceral imagery and themes which prompted me to jot down phrases like "savagery dressed in silk and velvet" that I had intended to use to describe the production as a whole, but witnessing the abruptly racist tones of the script's ending, I no longer felt those phrases appropriate. Suddenly Last Summer is rife with challenging themes, most of which provide for a sumptuous if not acidic feast for the mind that demands the audience's thought and reflection, but the ending leaves a sour taste in more ways than one. This is where, again, the context and content of the play is tightly intertwined with the playwright himself. Without going too deep into the modern trope of "Bury Your Gays", Tennessee Williams lived through the implementation of the Motion Picture Production Code, which only allowed mention of 'sexual deviancy' if the characters involved met some kind of horrible end, essentially a punishment for their sexuality. This led to a long-standing trope of gay characters doomed to meet tragic endings, even after the Production Code was dismantled. (As a queer person myself, the lack of happy endings is damn frustrating.)

Still, Tennessee Williams' works should be acknowledged, though not necessarily excused, as a product of their time and of Williams' own struggles. What could be considered homophobic by today's standards could just as easily be attributed to society-induced self-loathing from the playwright, living in an utterly intolerant society. Racist and classist tones exist in Suddenly Last Summer, though being a 'product of the time' doesn't quite excuse these elements to a modern audience.

Separate from the difficult themes the script presents, the production itself is nigh flawless in execution. The one-act play pairs well with the prelude of monologues from some of Williams' greatest hits, featuring selections from The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and more. The monologues tie in several themes prevalent in Williams' work, though they seem meandering until added to the full context of the following play.

Susanne Lamb brings flair and poise to the rich and driven Violet Venable, she commands the stage with subtlety and clarity. Chris Fidler as Doctor Cukrowicz, or 'Doctor Sugar', brings a more objective curiosity to the story, and shows versatility as he paints vivid pictures through his monologues. Taylor Shepard portrays Catherine Holly with the shaken sincerity befitting a woman suffering PTSD. She is hypnotic to watch; manic at times, unpredictable at every turn. Carol Bennett shines best in her Blanche DuBois monologue, though she brings a hint of playful silliness to her role of Sister in Suddenly Last Summer. Mary Beth Hollmann gives Miss Holly a vibrancy that suits her character, but also shines most brightly in her monologue from Sweet Bird of Youth, performing with sharp wit and bite that makes the audience long for more. Taylor Dahl and Alexandra Palmatier round out the cast as George Holly and Miss Foxhill with solid performances.

Director and set designer Jean-Paoul C. Clemente brings the New Orleans' household garden to life with foliage, furniture, and small details that add richness to the set, especially in the round. Details like a planter made from a tuba flesh out elements mentioned but not seen through the play, giving life to the script in fresh, subtle ways. His direction makes the most of the stage, the set, and his actors, with the exception of a few moments in the monologue showcase that might have been more successful with a 'less is more' approach in terms of movement. Stacey Walston's lighting design beautifully compliments the production, particularly through the monologues. Diane Katz's costumes are spot on, a perfect doorway into the time period, affluence (or lack thereof), and personal style of each character. Gail Gillespie's props add just the right amount of detail to the production, and Angela Kabasan Gonzalez's hair and makeup suits the costumes and the characters perfectly. Micky Small's media designs provide a dream-like window to the play, often making the garden feel much like a cage with a single upward window to memories past. Alexa Duke's sound design is impeccable, perfectly accentuating the performance without ever pulling the audience away from the action or actors.

All in all, despite some problematic elements in the script, Suddenly Last Summer and the accompanying monologues provide a spectacle that brings to light all the ways in which people use each other. MET showcases impressive acting, cohesive and creative design, and a sound production.

CLICK HERE for more information on this production, which runs through June 23

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