Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Tennessee Williams' 'Suddenly Last Summer' Doesn't Feel Quite So Fraught, for Good and Bad -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Suddenly Last Summer
by Tennessee Williams
directed by Jason Gerace
Raven Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 17
@@@1/2

Last month, at Chicago's Raven Theatre, I saw and reviewed a world premiere play by Philip Dawkins called The Gentleman Caller.

Still running at Raven and recently mounted Off-Broadway, the play set in 1944 dramatizes possible trysts between playwrights Tennessee Williams and William Inge, when neither was yet famous but Williams was soon to become Broadway royalty for The Glass Menagerie.

If the historical-yet-fictionalized script--and the actors' embodiments--are to be believed, Williams was publicly and privately comfortable with his homosexuality, while Inge was secretive and repressed.

Interestingly, the next play on the Raven slate--so now running concurrently with The Gentleman Caller--is Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams himself.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
It had debuted off-Broadway in early 1958, after the writer had achieved great success with Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Based in New Orleans in 1936, Suddenly Last Summer--especially when seen today--serves to remind, as does The Gentleman Caller, just how demonized, scorned and, thus, clandestine gay people once were (which isn't to suggest they have yet to achieve full acceptance).

I certainly understand that homosexuality was considered a crime in many places, and don't doubt the disheartening lengths gay individuals--and their families--were compelled to go to keep such a "lifestyle" unknown.

And despite Williams' seemingly confident openness, something dreadful in his experiences must have prompted the scenario he created in Suddenly Last Summer.

In the 90-minute, one-act play, a cold, callous woman named Violet Venable (Mary K. Nigohosian) tries to convince a doctor (Wardell Julius Clark) to lobotomize her niece Catherine (a terrific Grayson Hayl) so as to keep her from talking about seeing Violet's son Sebastian get killed--rather violently and suddenly--last summer.

MINOR SPOILER ALERT
Though it isn't explicitly stated until near the end of the play, the gist from the very beginning is that Sebastian was gay, and this reality sadly led to his death.

Given the era of the play, one could conceivably give Violet props for wanting to protect her son's--and her family's--reputation.

But she is so vile in how she seeks to quiet Catherine--who is afforded no compassion, even by her inheritance-seeking mother (Ann James) and brother (Andrew Rathgeber), for quite traumatically witnessing her cousin's brutal murder--that I could really only see Violet as reprehensible.

Perhaps it says something good about today's much wider embrace of the LGBTQ community that I had trouble being much engaged by--or tolerant of--Violet's icy manipulation of the doctor, or her cruel intimidation of her niece.

Maybe in 1936 or 1958, I would have better understood her going to such lengths, but though old works can be quite valuable in highlighting how things have--and haven't--changed over time, as an evening's entertainment in 2018, Suddenly Last Summer just didn't greatly enthrall or enlighten me.

Directed by Jason Gerace on a nicely steamy NOLA set by Joanna Iwanicka, the show is well-acted, with Hayl delivering a particularly bristling monologue with poignant gusto.

There's certainly quality to be found, but beyond being a pointed illustration of a woman so loathe to accept the truth about her otherwise beloved son--which feels a bit over-the-top in its baseness, at least today, which isn't a bad thing--this seems like a solid production of a decent play (which also isn't a bad thing).

On the heels of The Gentleman Caller, I'm glad I saw Suddenly Last Summer, adding it to the Tennessee Williams plays I've seen: the three most famous ones already mentioned, plus Sweet Bird of Youth, Night of the Iguana and Camino Real, the only one I really disliked.

But if you were to tell me you have a free night and might want to see something at Raven--a comfortable north side venue with easy parking that regularly does estimable work--even if you professed a fondness for Tennessee Williams, I would advise you to choose The Gentleman Caller, any day of the week.

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