Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Suddenly, Last Summer
This same ravishing wickedness comes back to life in a new production of 1958's Suddenly, Last Summer, under the direction of Tim Ocel. His fast-paced, elegant production runs through September 17 at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA) as part of the Tennessee Williams Festival of St. Louis.
Minutes before curtain, in the modern lobby of COCA's Catherine B. Berges Theatre, a group of friends and I mused that the 1959 film adaptation may have been too gothic. It was definitely a lot slower, with twenty-four minutes of extra padding. But this new staging obliterates the film's loggy Southern pace. Psychological bandaids are ripped off of each of the characters one by one, exposing half-healed wounds along with the shock and shame of exposure itself, until the villain is undone. Set in New Orleans in 1936, the play reminds us that the smug Levittown era of its Broadway premiere was also a time of great, invisible theatrical fractures and purple contusions of character.
Lisa Tejero plays the genteel spider woman, Violet Venable. She's so charming and socially ingratiating (at first) that an earnest young psychologist (Bradley Tejeda) couldn't possibly have known to have gotten his own affairs in order before stepping into the carnivorous garden of her late son Sebastian, a globe-trotting aesthete and would-be poet. After Sebastian's tribal, hypnotic death, Mrs. Venable has assembled a coterie of fearful dependents to safeguard his reputation, and her own.
On top of that, her late son the poet remains dangerous (for his own controlling nature) even in death. Sebastian appears on stage only in the form of the clothes he wore, which now adorn a far lesser cosmopolite. We first discern him–not just through the stories of his mother, but also through a kind of haunting subtraction–by everything a surviving male cousin (played by Harrison Farmer) is not. The decedent is further revealed by the racy travel tales of a female cousin, Catherine, played with great charm and distinction by Naima Randolph.
Dr. Cukrowicz (Mr. Tejeda) arrives on the scene looking for an endowment to fund his work in the new science of prefrontal lobotomy, to pacify mental patients who could not be quelled by electro-shock therapy. His search for funding has drawn him to this Garden District address, but he first must interview a potential new patient, young Catherine, who has humiliated Mrs. Venable with her stories about Sebastian. In a colorful 2021 biography of Williams' early years in St. Louis, "Blue Song," author Henry Schvey makes a startling claim as to why the playwright's own sister might have been subjected to lobotomy of her own: to prevent Rose Williams from taking violent revenge after childhood sexual abuse.
Ms. Randolph (as Catherine) is the perfect Williams ingenue, a radiant, freshly damaged presence. She and Violet will be reduced to madness by their exposure to a clever wordsmith. Both are caught in the grip of Williams, as surely as that of the late Sebastian. We learn the poet has tempted each of them to obtain secret male companionship for his own pleasure. And doomed both of them to soft poetic, summer lightning rhapsodies of their own. Sebastian, I mean. Though you say the same thing about Williams, I suppose.
Suddenly, Last Summer runs through September 17, 2023, at the Tennessee Williams Festival of St. Louis, Center of Creative Arts, 6880 Washington Avenue, St. Louis MO. Evening shows are at 7:30. For tickets and information, please visit www.twstl.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association