Tennessee Williams had The Gift, by which I mean he was an unstable, gay, Southern alcoholic, and he had an unnatural talent for recreating the intergenerational narcissism and delusion that are still very much a key part of old, white, dysfunctional Southern families.
Avant Bard Theatre has taken on two of his one-act plays: Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen and Suddenly Last Summer. Both are directed by Christopher Henley. Talk to Me is set in Manhattan, while Suddenly Last Summer takes place in the more typical Williams environment of the Garden District in New Orleans. Set Designer David Ghatan pairs up with Lighting and Projections Designer Hailey La Roe to create a set that provides enough white space for these very different locales to be accurately embodied as the action takes place.
Performing both of these plays in tandem creates an interesting effect. We see the threads in both language and theme that made Tennessee Williams such a popular playwright. Talk to Me opens with Miss Kitty, playing the role named only Woman, singing several blues-y standards. This was a great use of her talents. Her voice is warm and inviting and sets the tone for the loneliness that the character struggles with and that anchors the play. Her lover (we assume) named Man, played by Jonathan Del Palmer, can’t seem to stay out of trouble and can’t seem to stick around. A lot of bad things can happen to a person when they’re unconscious, he says to the woman.
Miss Kitty does a wonderful job of mirroring that dull sentiment back by having a complete breakdown, her character declaring the desire to be free of the type of things that haunt and destroy women when they are fully conscious. Both Miss Kitty and Del Palmer elevate this one act into something truly special, and it’s a real treat to see it. The play accurately captures the existential anguish that a person feels when they perceive themselves to be trapped, and it showcases Williams’s deep sympathy for, and identification with, his female characters.
Suddenly Last Summer carries the theme of loneliness and adds in a whole heap of dysfunctional family dynamics. There is a lot there that modern audiences might balk at, including his unflinching portrayal of the story of a man who, caught in a codependent relationship with his mother, turns his own issues outward and abuses others. Internalized homophobia is one hell of a drug, and Tennessee Williams doesn’t shy away from the discomfort it causes. The mystery that the narrative revolves around concerns Sebastian, who, prior to the start of the play, was killed in some sort of accident while on holiday with his cousin Catharine Holly (Sara Barker). We do find out what happened to Sebastian, despite the schemes of his vicious and twisted mother, Violet Venable (Cam Magee). I won’t spoil it, but it isn’t pretty.
Matt Sparacino plays Dr. Cukrowicz, also called Dr. Sugar, who has been called by the wealthy Ms. Venable to assess Catharine Holly. “Assess” is a word used loosely here, as the diagnosis Ms. Venable wants to acquire from the doctor has nefarious purposes. Sparacino’s doctor and Magee’s Ms. Venable play well with each other. It can be difficult to understand the momentum of their plot if you’re not aware of how deeply classist and superficial Southern culture is, and how easy it is to fall out of the graces of the upper class. If you become an embarrassment, you’re no longer useful. This held (and still holds) so much sway over individuals that Violet Venable couldn’t stand her son falling out of people’s good graces, even after his death. Magee portrays the tension and toxicity inherent in Violet’s role of protecting her son’s reputation without skipping a beat.
Sara Barker’s Catharine Holly provides an even clearer example of a fallen person. Her youthful mistake becomes the mechanism by which she descends from her privileged position into a precarious state from which she struggles to recover. Barker’s affecting performance shines brightest when Catharine is exposing her family for what they really are. At one point Catharine says, “We all use each other and that’s what we think of as love, and not being able to use each other is what’s hate.” This confusion of love with utility is at the root of so many social issues in the South. It is something that occurs in all cultures, but when you combine it with such extreme privilege it becomes particularly malignant.
Jonathan Del Palmer returns as Catharine’s brother George and is joined by Megan Morgan as Catharine’s mother. Christine Hirrell debuts as the exasperated Sister Felicity. Miss Kitty also returns as a sharp Miss Foxhill. Miss Kitty’s performance was stellar, but it really showcased some heavy-handedness with the direction that I think could have been toned down a bit. We don’t really need the thunder sound effect when Dr. Sugar says “lobotomy,” for example. We already knew what he was talking about, and it’s okay to let the audience sit with uncomfortable material without helping them through it.
Suddenly Last Summer is a slippery play to produce. There are things in it that are inappropriate and outdated. Overall, Avant Bard did a good enough job with the material. The acting was superb. Miss Kitty’s performance in Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen and Sara Barker’s performance in Suddenly Last Summer are high points. If you enjoy Tennessee Williams, you’ll probably enjoy seeing Talk to Me, as it offers a different flavor of his writing in a different kind of setting. Avant Bard is to be commended for not shying away from the challenges that the material presents. They did an admirable job of bringing these characters to life.
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.
Suddenly Last Summer and Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen play as a double bill through June 18, 2022, presented by Avant Bard Theatre performing at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA, where there is ample free parking. Tickets ($40) are available online or by calling 703-418-4808. Pay-What-You-Can (PWYC) tickets are also available online in advance for Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.
The program for Suddenly Last Summer and Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen is online here.
COVID Safety: Proof of vaccination is mandatory for entry into the theater. A negative COVID-19 test administered within 72 hours is accepted from patrons with a religious or medical exemption. Face coverings must be worn at all times when inside the venue, including while watching the performance and when using the restrooms. Avant Bard follows the VDH/CDC recommendations for preserving public health.
Woman: Miss Kitty
Man: Jonathan Del Palmer
Catharine Holly: Sara Barker
Violet Venable: Cam Magee
Mrs. Holly: Megan Morgan
Miss Foxhill: Miss Kitty
Dr. Cukrowicz: Matt Sparacino
Sister Felicity: Christine Hirrel
George Holly: Jonathan Del Palmer
Director: Christopher Henley
Set Designer: David Ghatan
Lighting Designer: Hailey LaRoe
Costume Designer: Anna Marquardt
Props Designer: Liz Long
Sound Designer/Composer: Clay Teunis
Photos: DJ Corey Photography
Avant Bard’s finely-tuned ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ keeps the audience on its toes (Andrew Walker White’s review of the March 2020 production, which closed when theaters shut down because of COVID)