Avant Bard’s finely-tuned ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ keeps the audience on its toes

Two lyric one-act plays bring Tennessee Williams' genius into the bright light of the twenty-first century

Let us never forget that Tennessee Williams, for all his genius with poetic language, was one of the most fearless, gut-wrenchingly honest playwrights of the twentieth century. We have Blanche DuBois facing off against the brutal Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, and the emotionally distant Tom Wingfield squaring off against his mother Amanda in The Glass Menagerie.

Erik Harrison as George Holly and Megan Morgan as Mrs. Holly in Avant Bard’s ‘Suddenly Last Summer.’ Photo by DJ Corey.

Each of these plays occupies a more commonly-depicted, strait-laced world, however. And Williams was not about to leave things there; he never flinched from gazing intently on the darker, exploitative side of humanity, and on other orientations. Suddenly Last Summer, in its original stage version, explores the never-discussed phenomenon of gay sexual tourism, the exploitation of young men of color in ‘exotic’ foreign locales, and the horrific, dehumanizing impact this has on both tourist and victim alike.

As if that weren’t enough, Williams also addresses the question of lobotomies, the mind-killing operation whose victims included his beloved sister, Rose. Set in the 1930s, when the procedure was being slowly introduced, Suddenly Last Summer throws a glaring light on the cynical uses of lobotomy in suppressing the truth of women’s lives.

Given the popularity of the play’s film version starring Elizabeth Taylor, Director Christopher Henley (Avant Bard’s Artistic Director Emeritus) avoided the temptation to stage it as a museum piece and thankfully adopted a presentational, free-wheeling approach, with his finely-tuned cast addressing the audience directly, tossing in hilariously cutting asides, and generally keeping you on your toes as you look on.

The in-the-round setting, moreover, complements this acting style, and the cast fills the space, engaging all onlookers and bringing us into the action. Sara Barker is phenomenal as Catherine Holly, one of Williams’ most tragic figures, who is forced to recount the murder of a beloved cousin overseas. More horrifically, Catherine must detail the circumstances which led to her cousin’s demise. Barker squares off here against the magisterial Cam Magee as Mrs. Violet Venable, the crotchety, mad-as-hell mother of the dead young man, whose denial of her son’s true nature, and of his dark side, is the centerpiece of the play. Mediating between these two stars is the dapper Matt Sparacino as Doctor Cukrowicz, who has been hired by Mrs. Violet to lobotomize Catherine under circumstances which, as becomes clear, is cynically self-serving in the extreme.

Mediating between these two stars is the dapper Matt Sparacino as Doctor Cukrowicz, who has been hired by Mrs. Violet to lobotomize Catharine under circumstances which, as becomes clear, are cynically self-serving in the extreme.  Because Catharine is a ward at a nearby mental hospital she is accompanied by Sister Felicity. Christine Harrell nicely evokes the frustrations of a woman who, like Catharine, has been trapped in a subservient role that leaves her vulnerable to attacks of various kinds.  Sister Felicity’s attempts at corralling her patient gain mixed results at best.

The darkness here is balanced by the comical sub-plot of the Venable family’s estate; the dearly-departed son, it seems, has willed a substantial amount of money to his cousin Catherine, her bumbling brother George Holly (Erik Harrison) and their mother Mrs. Holly (Megan Morgan). Harrison and Morgan make an appropriately goofy entrance, peering hopefully through the bay windows of Mrs. Violet’s home, and emphasize the comic aspects of their shameless money-grubbing (after all, Catherine’s silence would mean big bucks for everyone).

Sara Barker as Catherine Holly. Photo by DJ Corey.

For true comic relief, however, it’s hard to beat Miss Kitty’s turn as Miss Foxhill, Violet’s domestic assistant and, clearly, the brains of the operation. Henley and Kitty have conspired to give her every opportunity to offer mute, hilarious witness to the vanities of the characters Miss Foxhill has to serve, and she doesn’t miss a trick.

David Ghatan’s spare, wide-open set generously foregrounds the acting talent, and Ian Claar’s lights effectively transition from one scene to the next. The transitions, cinematic in nature, are punctuated by Clay Teunis’ sound design, a combination of ominous bird-calls, monkeys and syncopated New Orleans drum circles. Anna Marquardt, meanwhile, decks out the cast effectively, with combinations of color and complement that telegraph the characters’ natures.

The evening begins with one of Williams’ lesser-known one-acts, Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen. More tone poem than play, this is Williams at his most elegiac and musical, featuring two desperate, down-and-out characters. It begins with Woman (Miss Kitty), abandoned in a New Orleans hotel room, pacing the floor and belting out Billie Holliday classics with rare passion—evoking the mood of abandonment. The action unfolds in a series of cinematic black-outs, after one of which we meet next see his partner, the utterly debauched Man (Erik Harrison), returning to the room after days of being passed from hand to hand “like a dirty postcard.” Man has been abused in the course of his rough trade, and shows it; meanwhile, Woman’s solitary existence in this hotel room has been plagued by self-doubt, self-starvation and an overwhelming desire to escape. The themes of loneliness, psychological imprisonment and never-to-be-fulfilled desires intersect here, and Miss Kitty gives her character a fascinating, contemporary turn that is probably far closer to Williams’ heart. The real music begins with Woman’s dream of a life of ease, far away, and the longer she dreams out loud the more impossible that dream becomes.

Suddenly Last Summer and Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen are fitting tributes to Tennessee Williams’ genius, but more importantly, they bring his work into the bright light of the twenty-first century, revealing how contemporary his witness of the human condition continues to be.

Running Time: Two hours and 18 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.

Suddenly Last Summer and Talk to Me Like the Rain and Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let me Listen plays through April 5, 2020, in repertory with Lauren Gunderson’s Ada and the Engine, at Gunston Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 418-4808 or go online.

This review was updated on March 9, 2020.


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