“Suddenly Last Summer” is gripping portrait of moral disintegration

Tennessee Williams‘ play about corrupt power gets stunning performance

By Lucy Komisar

The set is like a jungle: a New Orleans courtyard with large palms and an overhead trellis dripping with vines and blood-red flowers, and on the ground, poinsettias. In the middle of the garden is a Venus fly trap under glass. The genteel Violet Venable (Blythe Danner) used to feed it fruit flies that her son Sebastian ordered from a supplier in Florida. It is a metaphor for Violet and her son, who would consume and destroy people, and for the terrible eerily parallel vengeance their actions let loose. She shows it off casually when a visitor arrives.

Danner and Carla Gugino, as her niece, Catharine Holly, are brilliant in Tennessee Williams‘ dark portrait of moral disintegration, first produced in 1958. Director Mark Brokaw creates a mood of subtle horror that expands as you discover the cruelty of corrupting wealth and power. The lush set by Santo Loquasto provides a sense of nature gone a bit wild.

The women are connected by Sebastian, who has died at 40, but in the years before dominated their lives. Catharine knows the dark story of his death at Cabeza de Lobo (it means wolf‘s head), a fictional seaside village. To suppress the truth, Violet has committed the young woman to St Mary‘s, a hospital for the mentally ill, where she has been given shock treatments.

Violet and Catharine are cut from the same cloth, both tough Southern ladies with a veneer of gentility. Or maybe that gentility is a false cloak provided by the syrupy New Orleans accents that they wear with such assurance. Violet is rich and soignée and looks it, elegant, in a colorful patterned purple wrap over her violet dress. She is a bully. Catharine, intense, and on all accounts innocent, wears a seductive white dress with a cutout bodice that leaves little to the imagination. Or did designer Loquasto just pull that off the rack?

Violet has had Catharine brought to the house so she can meet Dr. Cukrowicz (Gale Harold), who runs an experimental lobotomy program at the state hospital. She wants him to take Catharine as a patient. When Catharine speaks in the language of poetic hyperbole, the doctor gives her a calming shot. Is that what is done to art?

The real mental case is Violet‘s quintessential neurotic fixation on her son. She for years had accompanied him on summer trips and refused to return home even when she got word her husband was dying. Her “loyalty” to her son is shown to be as disreputable as the disloyalty shown to Catharine by her greedy mother and brother.

Williams‘ language is rich and poetic, with metaphors curiously drawn from the natural world. Violet tells of sailing with Sebastian to the Galapagos Islands where they saw giant sea turtles hatch on the beach and then scurry to the water to escape the carnivorous birds that swooped down and devoured the unlucky.

The performances of the supporting characters don‘t match Danner and Gugino. Harold is oddly flat as the doctor. But the play is constructed largely around monologues by Danner and Gugino, and one savors every word.

“Suddenly Last Summer.” Written by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Set and costumes by Santo Loquasto. Starring Blythe Danner, Carla Gugino, Gale Harold, Becky Ann Baker, Sandra Shipley, Karen Walsh, Wayne Wilcox.

Roundabout Theatre Company at Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th St. Tue-Sat 7:30pm; Wed, Sat-Sun 2pm. Running Time 1:30. Through Jan. 20, 2007. $63.75 – $73.75. 212-719-1300. http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/pels.htm.

Photos by Joan Marcus.

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