Crazy days of summer
CLU’s expert and daring staging of Tennessee Williams play
By Kit Stolz 11/17/2011
Suddenly Last Summer is a crazy play — quite literally.
Set, for the most part, in an insane asylum, this one-act, brilliantly staged this past week and next at California Lutheran’s Black Box Theatre, features a beautiful young woman imprisoned in an asylum and threatened with a lobotomy if she speaks the truth about what happened to her cousin and friend, Sebastian Venable.
As is so often the case with works by playwright Tennessee Williams, this drama was based on a true story from his own wildly dramatic life. His older sister Rose, a fragile beauty, developed schizophrenia, was sent to an asylum, and, when she would not stop talking about her sexual desires, was lobotomized at her puritanical mother’s request. Williams never forgot Rose. He took care of her and visited with her throughout his life, and worked her story into many of his plays, but in no other play confronted her mental neutering so directly. There’s a reason for that.
“He was in a lot of pain when he was writing this play,” explained director Nate Sinnott.
“He was undergoing a Freudian psychotherapy that was intended to cure him of his homosexuality. He was also encouraged not to write, not to drink and not to use the prescription medications he was abusing. So most of the things that were important to him, he was told not to do because they were wrong.”
Williams tried to follow his doctor’s advice, but ended up pouring his torment into this unforgettable play, which pits one kind of cruelty and craziness against another. On one side, we see the insanity of the super-rich Violet Venable, who lost her beloved son Sebastian to a rapacious gang of street kids in Spain, but cannot bear to hear the truth about him. She thinks he was “chaste,” pure, a poet; but in truth, he was a gay man who used young women — such as his beautiful cousin Catherine Holly — to lure men into his company. Violet pressures a doctor to lobotomize Catherine, to keep this truth hidden, and in return promises donations for his research.
On the other side, we see “the cruel face of God” come to life in a horrifying account of the ruthless birds that prey on sea-turtle hatchlings in the South Pacific, and in the equally cruel street kids that prey on desperate gay men like Sebastian Venable.
It’s shocking, symbolic — unlike most of Williams’ plays — and masterfully brought to life in Sinnott’s “experimental” staging. He points out that Williams wrote that the stage design “could be as unrealistic as a lyric ballet,” and chooses to put us inside the asylum with the cast. The grimy floor of black and white tiles angles down a muddy slope toward us. Broken pieces of asphalt lie about and it feels as if we’re inside a madness. Stark black and white images of strange natural phenomena on high screens add to the ominous mood. Behind the bars around the back of the stage, a phalanx of attendants dressed all in white stares coldly at Violet and Catherine as they battle desperately with their words. Disaster lurks behind every moment.
Sinnott’s cast, which has been rehearsing this outpouring of a play four days a week since September, fully inhabits the text (far more successfully than the plodding movie version, despite a tremendous cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Katherine Hepburn). Martha Sadie Griffin finds the dignity in Violet Venable’s nonstop mourning for her son, while Shannon Dempsey brings a trembling desperation to her portrayal of the trapped, helpless Catherine Holly. In the end, the play packs a wallop — “a sucker punch to the nose,” as Sinnott promised.
Suddenly Last Summer at California Lutheran University’s Black Box Theatre through Nov. 20. $10. 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. 493-3415 or www.callutheran.edu.