Suddenly Last Summer, at the Loeb Ex, is a brilliant production of a strange and terrifying play. It is a very difficult play to stage, consisting almost entirely of two long monologues. But fine acting and ingenious direction prevent the performance from being talky or static, while still doing justice to Tennessee Williams' very poetic language.
The play is about--well, it's about what Tennessee Williams is about: poetry, the search for God, homosexuality. As one of the characters in the play says, the poet is his work, the work is the poet. It's about Sebastian Venable, a middle-aged homosexual poet who produced one long, privately-published poem a year. He travelled each summer with his mother in order to write the poem. One summer--last summer--he took his cousin Catherine instead, and died under mysterious circumstances.
The play consists of the two women--the mother and Catherine--giving their versions of Sebastian's character. His mother worships him, and refuses to admit any flaws. Catherine, under the influence of a truth serum, tells what he was really like, and the sordid way he died.
Outside of the reminiscences of these two women, the play barely exists. All the surface action of the play does is to make the juxtaposition of the two monologues plausible. And, on a realistic level. Catherine's grotesque story of Sebastian's death--he was devoured (literally) by the young beggars he courted at a beach resort--is completely unbelievable. In Suddenly Last Summer Williams tries to move us by simply presenting us with a set of powerful, and very personal, symbols. He succeeds.
But a stage production must do more than merely present us with symbols. Director Emily Mann's idea to counteract the static nature of the play is to have dancers above and beside the stage mime some of the crucial events the characters are describing, particularly Sebastian's death. This kind of device is dangerous, but here it works, because the director has sense enough to use it sparingly, and never lets it get in the way of what's happening on stage.
The acting is superb, particularly Innes-Fergus McDade as Mrs. Venable, the obsessed, patrician Southern matron, Jeannie Lindheim, as Catherine, is slightly less effective, perhaps because her character is less clearly drawn. The best of the minor characters is Mary Elizabeth Leach as Catherine's mother, a fluttery, weakminded old lady who only wants to keep things calm so that she can get part of Sebastian's estate.
A play about people talking about a dead, gay poet doesn't sound like it would make for a very enjoyable evening at the theater. But when it's written by a playwright like Tennessee Williams, and staged by a company like that at the Loeb Ex. it becomes not merely enjoyable. It becomes essential.
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