Typical Tennessee and then some

Suddenly Last Summer (Growl Theatre)

Windsor School of Arts Hall

August 15 – 29

The setting of Growl Theatre’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer” is a lush jungle-garden of violent colours and both deceptive beauty and foreshadowing savagery, signalled in its accompanying soundscape and a central, insectivorous Venus flytrap. The garden hothouse staging comes complete with white wicker furniture, park bench seating and a wheelchair, which belongs to Mrs Violet Venable (Jenny Bonney-Millett), an elderly socialite widow from a prominent New Orleans family.

The obviously wilful wealthy matriarch is a formidable grande dame who vainly refuses to admit that she suffered a mild stroke the previous year, ending her cherished role as her only son Sebastian’s travelling companion. With put-upon secretary Miss Foxhill (Betsy Appelhof) by her side, she can now only recount stories of their summer sojourns with hyperbolic nostalgia. There is, however, no hope of return to their happy days as ‘Violet and Sebastian’, given Sebastian’s recent sudden death. Now she focuses instead on her feelings of jealousy towards his replacement travelling companion, cousin Catharine Holly (Bianca Butler Reynolds).

Acid-tongued in her talk of Catharine, Violet gushes in worship of Sebastian, telling visiting Doctor Cukrowicz (Daren King) how her son was chaste, spelled c-h-a-s-t-e not chased, but he was chased too, by pursuers of his good looks. Clearly this portrait of her son is oblivious to the indiscrete reality of the man behind the mask of disguise he wears in the photos that serve as her now-treasured possessions. While this initial establishment is important, however, her early scenes serve more as monologue, making for a meandering beginning to an otherwise taut work.

The story Violet tells is that of her unpublished poet son (a central character that never actually appears on stage) who died unexpectedly while on vacation with cousin Catharine as companion. Upon returning, Catharine’s story of Sebastian’s death was considered so disturbing that she has been sent to an institution, funded by Violet. Troubled by Catharine’s ramblings, Violet has called upon Doctor Cukrowicz who specialises in lobotomies, in a quest to protect her family name from the ravages of a sordid story.

The conflict is complicated by Violet’s need to obtain Catherine’s mother’s (Marion Jones) permission for the operation, which she achieves by threatening to delay probate on Sebastian’s will, in which he has left a considerable amount of money to Catherine and her simple and selfish brother, George (Lachlan Driscoll) …. hence their summons to her Garden District mansion, along with Catherine, who remains under the ever-watchful eye of her authoritarian minder Sister Felicity (Libby Scales). As the doctor interviews Violet and Catharine (and injects Catharine with a truth serum) the scandalous story of Sebastian’s moral dissolution unravels towards shocking revelation of what really happened to him suddenly last summer.

Though middle scenes see the production’s seven players finally on stage together, engagement is enhanced through the standout performances of siblings George and Catherine. Bianca Butler Reynolds, in particular, gives a compelling wide-eyed tormented performance in Catharine’s histrionic monologue retell of what happened, in what is a terrible but also terribly convincing story of how Sebastian’s carnal desires came undone in Frankenstein’s monster-like mythology.

The story is set in 1938 Louisiana, and the cast handles the play’s challenging southern accents with ease, even if not the needed projection to guide the audience through the story’s orientation, which is particularly noticeable given its typically Tennessee Williams dialogue heaviness. While “Suddenly Last Summer” is of a more palatable length than his iconic “A Streetcar Named Desire”, the playwright’s other trademarks all still make appearance … from lyrical language and metaphor, to oppressive sticky weather of the sort that makes men dab at their brow with folded handkerchief and tragic, psychologically disturbed characters.  

Experience of the Gothic mystery is a powerfully intense one, enhanced by knowledge that, just as Williams based his memory play, “The Glass Menagerie”, on his own family, this one act work is also personal, given his issues around his mother and her sudden decision to have his sister lobotomised, as well as his personal guilt over his own inaction. While it might have been controversial for its time, when written in 1957, decades later, in Growl Theatre’s hands, the play’s exploration of the light and shadow of acceptance resonates with message about how the haunted side of human nature can destroy those around us.

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