KPBS AIRDATE: NOVEMBER 4, 1998
Pimping. Murder. Cannibalism. Lobotomy. Sounds like the Jerry Springer Show. But it’s really Tennessee Williams.
In “Suddenly Last Summer,” his 1958 Off Broadway one-act, Williams probes his familiar themes of life and death, power, greed and corruption — with a vengeance. He brought to the American theater a new level of sexual frankness. And when, in 1959, a movie was made from this play, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, it ushered in a new age of cinematic sexuality.
The brutal, harrowing story concerns Mrs. Violet Venable, a wealthy Southern dowager whose life, built around her beloved son, was shattered when he died. She describes him as a sensitive poet; in reality, he was a corrupt, amoral, monstrous hedonist. Every year, he and his mother, in their supremely dysfunctional relationship, traveled together for three months. But last summer, he took his young female cousin instead, and he died suddenly in a seaside resort called Cabeza de Lobo. The young cousin was traumatized by the death, but her retelling of the events is so horrific that her harridan aunt has had her committed to a mental institution. Now, even that won’t shut her up, and her persistence threatens the elaborate fantasy Violet has contrived to immortalize her poetic son. Mrs. Venable promises funds to the local asylum for a much-needed neurosurgery wing. There’s only one condition. The doctor/recipient must agree to neutralize her niece by means of lobotomy.
This is one of Williams’ most autobiographical plays. He, too, was a poetic, closeted gay man. And his own dragon-mother had his beloved sister lobotomized. Although the play isn’t usually listed among his very best and most brilliant creations, it is shocking and appalling, if done right. Within its mix of erotic and religious themes, it contains strains of the wonderful, lyrical language for which Williams is rightly revered.
At Diversionary Theatre, “Suddenly Last Summer” is directed by Douglas Jacobs, co-founder and 20-year artistic director of the San Diego Repertory Theatre. His cast is strong but the acting is uneven. The tone veers wildly from dramatic realism to the surreal, and frequently sinks into melodrama, with overblown musical underscoring that smacks of satire or B-movies. The film, too, descended into camp, which is a great risk with this material and these roles. Here, the accents come and go like a Southern breeze, and the acting levels range from flat to hysterical. It’s a long, languorous 90 minutes, stretched interminably at times, frenetic and clamorous at others. There isn’t a likable character onstage. But at the end, when the ghastly story of Sebastian’s death is revealed, there should be a moment of shock, revulsion, abhorrence. Instead, there is nothing.
The lush garden/jungle set is described at the beginning, Williams’ detailed stage notes oddly read by an eternally grimacing, Germanic Rhona Gold as the caretaker, Miss Foxbill. The set is foreboding in a way, though quite fanciful, too, with artist Joan Austin’s colorful “flying dragons,” taking the place of the symbolic Venus flytrap, more reminiscent of Mexican folk art than old New Orleans decadence. The costumes also don’t consistently represent the designated time and place. As Mrs. Venable, Priscilla Allen wears an imperious face but not elegant attire. And as Cathy, Shannon Maree Smith’s moves are erratic and her outfit is garishly mismatched. Each of the fine actors seems to be shooting for a star-turn in his or her own little play. No one really interacts credibly. And this leaves the audience with an unnerving sense of distance and alienation. Tennessee Williams was obsessed with outcasts and outsiders. But he never intended to leave the audience out, too.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.