Fear and loathing stalk the stage at the Tower Grove Abbey, where Stray Dog Theatre has taken residence. Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer is a war of words. They are among the most evocative, sensuous and tactile words that America's premier lyric dramatist ever wrote. By the time this engrossing moral fable reaches its incredulous climax, Williams' sculpted, chiseled prose has exposed us to a fantastical world where madness is lonelier than death.
Tennessee was in a bad way when he wrote Suddenly Last Summer. The critical ravaging of his preceding effort, Orpheus Descending, had sent him into psychoanalysis. As a form of therapy, almost as if in a vain attempt to rewrite his tortured family history, in a rush he composed this intensely personal one-act whose genesis was his sister Rose's lobotomy in 1943. Williams, who was not informed of that surgery until after the deed was done, used this play as an opportunity to relive the moment of decision: To cut or not to cut, that is the question.
In New Orleans in 1936, the unctuously tyrannical Violet Venable (a stand-in for Williams' mother Edwina) is determined to lobotomize Catharine, her Cassandra-like niece (Rose). What is Catharine's sin? She's telling this shocking and slanderous story about how last summer, while on vacation with Violet's son Sebastian in Cabesa de Lobo (double entendre, anyone?), Sebastian met a most sudden and horrid death. He was, in fact, cannibalized.
The unseen Sebastian is the third principal character, a surrogate for Williams himself. There has been precious little dissembling here. Sebastian is a peripatetic poet who yearned for fame after death "when it couldn't disturb him." (Williams took greater pride in his poetry than in his plays.) Charming, brilliant and scarifying, Sebastian was a user and a taker, a gay blade who could toss aside friends and relatives as easily as he might flick cigarette ashes from his lapel. The metaphor of Sebastian's having been devoured alludes to the critics' savaging of Orpheus Descending.
This lucid Stray Dog production, which has been directed by Gary F. Bell, is remarkably effective at revealing the many layers of Williams' nightmarish world. Although the script has a cast of seven (and there's good work here by Liz Hopefl as Catharine's flighty mother and Rusty Gunther as her dense brother), essentially the story is a duel to the death between Violet and Catharine.
Nancy Lewis' portrait of Mrs. Venable is mesmerizing. For her, hatred is a life-sustaining passion, a reason to go on living. Williams' stage directions instruct Mrs. Venable to gulp her medicine. Lewis instead ingests it slowly, as if taking a sacrament. Loathing is her religion. She is a force to be feared, and Julie Layton's Catharine is duly terrified. Eyes vacant and lower lip practically bit through, Layton resembles a fraying nerve end. She has found Catharine in the almost-throwaway line, "I got panicky, Mother." We see the cancerous fear that infects her.
The referee in this joust is the doctor (Joshua Thomas) who is to perform the operation. Alas, Williams has no interest in this character, perhaps because he never knew the real doctor. Williams only cares about Rose, perhaps the only person he ever loved unconditionally. Was there a specific day in 1943 when Rose was told she was going to have a lobotomy? If so, how did she react? It's surely a moment Tennessee dramatized in his mind countless times, and he wrote about it here. By the end of this brief but harrowing evening, Catharine (like A Streetcar Named Desire's equally put-upon Blanche) is dependent on the kindness of strangers. It's a kindness Rose was denied. But in art which, as Sebastian reminds us, can be a search for God mere mortals can play god, and even resurrection is possible.