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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Tennessee William’s Suddenly Last Summer is Stark Drama at its Finest

Also see Richard's review of The Ramayana

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is presenting one of its finest productions of the 2002/2003 season with the staging of Tennessee Williams' rarely produced Suddenly Last Summer. The stark drama is one of the playwright's major contributions to the American stage. It is one of the least produced because of Williams' departure from the more traditional dramatic structure. The 100 minute, one act play is actually a play with two long monologues that is regarded as the writer’s most poetic work. These beautiful monologues by the two main leading characters are almost operatic in nature. It is a play that anyone who loves serious and thought provoking drama should see.

The drama can be considered an allegorical fable involving a mother who is desperate to preserve the wholesome image of her deceased son. The stark play is set in an overgrown garden in New Orleans in 1936 following the tragic and mysterious death of her idolized 40 year old son Sebastian. The wealthy widow Mrs. Venable (Randy Danson) is desperate to preserve his “wholesome” image as a poet and lover of beauty. She had always been her son’s companion on trips to Europe and the people always looked upon them not as mother and son but Sebastian and Violet. You get the idea of a very unhealthy relationship, especially on the part of the mother.

Mrs. Venable was unable to accompany the son on his fatal trip to Europe the previous summer, due to a minor stroke. A poor relation, cousin Catharine (Michelle Duffy), traveled with Sebastian to Europe where he met a violent death on the beaches of Cabeza de Lobos. Catharine comes back and starts to tell sordid tales of Sebastian’s lifestyle and his brutal death. The wealthy mother, egger to protect the son’s name, commits Catharine to a rest home due to her bizarre behavior.

Mrs. Venable, who will stop at nothing to silence the girl who dares to smear Sebastian’s good name, has Dr. Cukrowicz (Joey Collins) (known as Dr. Sugar, since his last name is Polish for sugar) come to her house to interview Catharine. The mother must convince the good doctor of the cousin’s insanity and the need for him to perform a lobotomy. In order to get the doctor on her side, Mrs. Venable has promised a generous research grant in return for his services.

"Truth serum" is given to Catharine and we hear the ugly story of Sebastian on the beaches of Cabeza de Lobos, which means "Cape of the Wolves," a predatory reference to Sebastian's death. The death is also a symbolic reference to St. Sebastian’s martyr death as Catharine relates the last day of the poet’s life.

Tennessee Williams wrote the drama soon after entering psychoanalysis in 1957 and about the same time he began to visit his paranoid schizophrenic sister who had been institutionalized by his mother Edwina. She had authorized lobotomy on her daughter under the Freeman and Watts procedure, and this had a profound effect on the playwright. Williams wrote the play to show the very essence of life which the playwright viewed as cannibalistic. Tennessee Williams said “Man devours man in a metaphorical sense. He feeds upon his fellow creatures, without the excuse of animals. Animals actually do it for survival, out of hunger ... I use that metaphor to express my repulsion with this characteristic of man, the way people use each other without conscience.” As Catharine says, “Yes we all use each other and that’s what we think of as love.”

Randy Danson, sporting a Southern accent as Mrs. Venable, dominates the first thirty minutes telling her side of the story of the “god-like” son. She tells of an incident that occurred when they were traveling on the island of Galapagos, which has relevance as to what happens to Sebastian on those sunny beaches. The actress looks like Lucrezia Borgia in regal purple sitting in her wheel chair. Her voice goes from honey to a bullying rasp in just one sentence. However, as she continues with her long monologue she gains influence and supremacy as she tells about her life with her “chased” son.

Michelle Duffy gives a magnetic performance as Catharine, especially when telling the true story of Sebastian. She exemplifies Sebastian in all of his multifaceted personalities, his calculating contradictions. She gives a heart-wrenchingly passionate performance during the last 30 minutes of the drama.

Joey Collins plays the doctor, and he is very clinical in his performance. I have seen several actors, including Victor Slezak in a Circle of the Square performance and Gerald Butler in London, play the role with more sympathy to Catharine's plight. Collins plays it completely straight down the middle.

Anne Darragh as Catharine's flighty mother and T. Edward Webster as the ill-mannered self-absorbed brother are excellent in their roles. They are a welcome break between the two major monologues of Mrs. Venable and Catharine. Rounding out the cast are Deborah Black as Sister Felicity and Jeri Lynn Cohen, who do what they can with smaller roles.

Annie Smart’s New Orleans garden set is amazing. There are enormous curling green leaves pressed against the two story glass walls. It is positively breathtaking. The light by Chris Parry is also astonishing since the walls go from a cool green to sweltering reds and violets and occasionally the stage lights up in blinding white lights. The direction by Les Walters is masterful.

Suddenly Last Summer runs through Sunday, March 23rd at the Berkeley Rep Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, Ca. For tickets please call 510-647-2949 or got to www.berkeleyrep.org. Their other production is the world premiere of Francesca Faridany's Fraulein Else, playing at their theatre next door.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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