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St. Louis by Richard Green

Suddenly Last Summer
Stray Dog Theatre

Also see Sarah's review of Fat Pig

The great art on the newest stage in town comes in the way simple things gradually twist themselves around the truth, and suddenly seem to be strangling us with a sickening sweet vine, wrapped around our necks.

Tennessee Williams' 1958 exploration of the grotesque, seductive power of a poet still leaves a tightness in the throat. Nancy Lewis is Violet Venable, unshakable in her convictions, with charming machinations that seem harmless and quaint at first. And as the girl who replaces her (as bait in the poet's search for international rough-trade) Julie Layton is hypnotic and beautiful, even in her deep loathing of that poet's fatal flaws.

Sebastian, the deceased poet, never appears on stage, but he's always there, just outside the corner of our eye, thanks to the two men in the cast: one, wearing his old clothes; the other, handsome and charming. And, as if she were suddenly unveiling the latest model hearse, Ms. Lewis turns from wistful chatter about her late, lyrical son, to a ghastly proud nightmare of a woman. The occasional, indulgent chuckles from the audience seemed more to acknowledge the subtle swagger she brings to the role, and her formidable presence, than the mythic horror of her maternal obsession.

There are many moments of restrained elegance in the direction by producer Gary F. Bell, though I might wish the beautiful Ms. Layton were not upstaged so often by other actors, or by her hair. Perhaps this upstaging simply makes her more riveting in the play's final twenty minutes, where she looks out over our heads to remember Sebastian's murder. Joshua Thomas, handsome and patrician, is perfectly cast as the genteel young doctor, seeking a grant to explore the new science of lobotomy. My only real concern about the production is that both he and Ms. Layton are hard to understand at times in the echoing sanctuary, when their voices become light and rushed. The two more experienced women on stage, Ms. Lewis and the great Liz Hopefl (as her sister-in-law), give no ground to poor acoustics. They gently snip off their words like orchids, before they can echo back like a curse.

Whatever Ms. Layton is remembering to evoke the horrible flashback suggested by the play's title, it must be pretty staggering. She's deeply fascinating in the role made famous by Elizabeth Taylor, and equaled here without the benefit of extreme close-ups or literalized flashbacks. But then, Ms. Layton was so appallingly good as the madwoman of Williams' Orpheus Descending last year, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that sanity itself becomes her plaything.

When Ms. Lewis and Ms. Layton return to the stage for the final long Judgment Day reminiscence about male prostitutes and cannibalism, it is as if some great courtroom scene were being convened at the center of Creation. The fearful, scheming Mrs. Holly (Ms. Hopefl) and the naively virtuous Sister Felicity (Jan Niehoff) keep their hands hovering over the panic button throughout, along with the fine Chelsea Zotta as Mrs. Venable's assistant. Rusty Gunther draws the perfect shadow of a weasel in his smooth and naturalistic turn as the poet's grasping cousin.

The story is set in 1936, which certainly allows for a lot of protective self-deception about gay sex. Thankfully, its two leading ladies avoid any antiquarian ambiance, setting up a powerful charge to keep the story fresh. Ms. Lewis's languid attempts to destroy her niece's mind, and the urgency of Ms. Layton's climb out of madness, show how Sebastian overshadows them, even in death. I could wish that the doctor and the nephew were posed more artfully in some of the flashbacks to underline the clever ghost-story at work, but there's already more than enough to hold our attention on stage in this polished, taut production.

The set, by Sarah Thorowgood Daniels and Cathy Altholz, is excellent: a vast profusion of exotic plants create a twisted path on the lovely, arched alter. The back corner of the Venable's New Orleans home provides a roost for the steady stream of peeping-toms, hoping to catch the truth beneath the lies.

The church itself is quite lovely, in spite of the acoustics, with a large parking lot on the north side and the main entrance on the south side of the building, just north of Sidney Street, at Tower Grove Abbey, 2335 Tennessee Ave. Through September 22, 2007. For more information, call (314) 865-1995 or visit them on-line at www.straydogtheatre.org.

The Cast
Mrs. Violet Venable ... Nancy Lewis
Doctor Cukrowicz ... Joshua Thomas
Miss Foxhill ... Chelsea Zotta
Mrs. Holly ... Liz Hopefl
George Holly ... Rusty Gunther
Catharine Holly ... Julie Layton
Sister Felicity ... Jan Niehoff

The Crew
Director ... Gary F. Bell
Stage Manager ... Jay V. Hall
Set Design ... Sarah Thorowgood Daniels
Lighting Design ... Tyler Duenow
Sound Design ... Robin Weatherall
Costume Design ... Gary F. Bell
Set Decoration ... Cathy Altholz, Sarah Thorowgood Daniels
House Manager ... Jennifer Zoole


-- Richard T. Green

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