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'Last Summer' Simply Horrifies

Tennessee Williams’ last and favorite play pushes the bounds of bizarre

By Erika P. Pierson, Contributing Writer

As Mrs. Venable rubs her ring-covered hands over Dr. Sugar’s chest while blabbering about sea turtles, his face has a look of absolute discomfort, shock, and horror. Dr. Sugar’s look pretty much encapsulates the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s production of Tennessee Williams’s “Suddenly Last Summer,” which will run in the Loeb Ex through Nov. 15. Director Jason R. Vartikar-McCullough ’11 takes an already disturbing play to the extreme, bizarre realm of a comedic horror show.

“Suddenly Last Summer” is not one of Williams’s most popular pieces. It is a short one-act play centered around monologues from its two main characters, Mrs. Venable (Danielle A. Aykroyd ’12) and Catherine Holly (Lauren N. Medina ’12). Mrs. Venable has gone mad over the death of her son, Sebastian. She refuses to accept that he was a homosexual and is willing to take dramatic measures to ensure that this is not revealed. Mrs. Venable sees only one solution: to have Catherine Holly, the only witness of the murder, lobotomized.

Unfortunately, Ms. Venable and Catherine are not the only characters who have gone crazy in this production; the entire cast has gone with them. Suddenly Tennessee Williams’s play has turned into some sort of zombie nightmare. The cast is laden with heavy black eye makeup, and characters such as Mrs. Foxhill (Rachel A. Stark ’11) shuffle around the stage, stare into the audience with vacant expressions, and speak in monotone. Sister Felicity (Hollie Zegman) even wipes down the floor with red water resembling blood as the action of the play continues on around her.

The high-pitched and babyish voice Medina uses to portray Catherine is reminiscent of a bad horror movie, which only gets worse as Medina—hair slung in front of her face while she lays on the floor—peers out at the audience with striking resemblance to the girl from “The Ring.”

Amidst the horror show, Catherine’s mother, Mrs. Holly, enters, played by Michael Handelman. The inexplicable choice to have Mrs. Holly played by a man only adds to the uncomfortable comedy of it all.

Odd sexual undertones are present throughout. Dr. Sugar bides Catherine to sit on his lap and tells her he’s got something for her in his pocket, then proceeds to inject her with “truth serum.” Characters moan during monologues, roll around on the floor, and unbutton their shirts, all of which is highly distracting from the actual plotline.

The Loeb Ex is an intimate performance space, and with only a few yards separating the audience from the actors, all of the convulsions, screams, rolling on the floor, waving of arms, and moaning seem too much to digest and at times almost comical.

Still, credit should really be given to the actors, as this is not an easy play to execute. Hell, Medina is forced to remain cross-eyed the entire show, a feat that gives me a headache just thinking about it. And though Mrs. Venable’s madness is certainly not easy to portray, Aykroyd delivers her long monologues stuttering in a heavy southern accent all the while remaining incredibly understandable. The cast’s grasp on the play’s complex characters should certainly be commended.

The set, conceived by the director in collaboration with Rachel D. Libeskind ’11, was pleasing to look at but did not comfortably mesh with the actual tone of the play. White drapes along the wall and white lace coverings over the furniture and plants perfectly create the starkness of an asylum. The lighting, designed by Michael W. Zellmann-Rohrer ’10, shifts between stark white lights, softer ivory ones, and red tones, and serves to heighten the setting. But while the set is well-executed, it remains unclear how it fits into the overall artistic vision of the play.

The issue seems to lie with the direction in which the show was taken. Experimental is certainly the correct term, but the experimental portion of the production simply gets out of hand. “Lunatics don’t have reasons,” Mrs. Venable screams, and the intentions of Vartikar-McCullough aren’t clear, either.

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