Raven Theatre’s ‘Suddenly Last Summer.’ (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
The one-act play Suddenly Last Summer is as high quality an example of Tennessee Williams’ Southern Gothic style and lyricism as anything in the poet and playwright’s canon. The drama made its very northern Broadway debut in 1958, a ripe cultural moment for Williams’ overheated, repressed, yet languid aesthetic. And the latest Chicago revival of the play, the conclusion to Raven Theatre’s 35th anniversary season, does the work great justice.
Audiences will be aware that they’ve entered the Garden District of New Orleans, where Suddenly Last Summer is set before a word of drawling dialogue is uttered. That’s owing to the fine teamwork of scenic designer Joanna Iwanicka, lighting designer Claire Chrzan and prop designer Mary O’Dowd. I wanted to live in widowed matriarch Violet Venable’s home and bask in the sunshine-filled, sultry landscape. I don’t often come by this feeling when aware I’m looking at a two-dimensional fabrication. The creative efforts that support the production’s acting and direction are fully three-dimensional. Semi-conscious humidity is felt, and unseen mosquitos are heard.
The simmering hate between the work’s characters is white hot as well. Press materials accurately describe the plot as structured around the mercurial (and possibly Oedipal) Violet (Mary K. Nigohosian). The dowager “has summoned a brain surgeon to her home. Her niece Catherine (Grayson Heyl) has been crazed and traumatized since witnessing the horrifyingly violent death of Violet’s son… unwilling to accept other facts about her son’s life, Mrs. Venable pursues extraordinary measures to keep Catherine silent.”
Of course, because this is a Tennessee Williams script, someone is in the closet and there’s also a plentiful portion of colonial racism. When people of color are not relegated to the periphery, as is the case with Miss Foxhill (played by understudy Song Marshall on opening night), they are forthrightly othered, evidenced in painful detail by Catherine’s story of her never-seen cousin Sebastian’s final days in Spain. At the apex of this moment of sociopolitical resistance, we’ve grown all-too-familiar with uncomfortable tensions between meaningful art, the artist and the cultural period in which he or she created.
So perhaps it’s appropriate that the interpersonal dynamics between Violet, Catherine, and the professionals and family members who spin in their orbit, induce another kind of queasiness. One thing we can say for Tennessee Williams, he liked to dive deeply into the caverns of human experience. It’s the spirit in which Suddenly Last Summer was intended and the talented cast turns in uniformly terrific work.
One of the lasting images that remains with me is the striking contrast between an elderly, wheelchair-bound, but spritely Machiavellian Violet versus the statuesque, physically hearty but emotionally frail Catherine. Director Jason Gerace and casting professional Lynn Baber chose well in hiring Nigohosian and Heyl to help these characters play out their twisted game of psychological chicken.
Although the play’s homophobia and racism feel artistically dated, the existential questions posed by the script feel entirely relevant, even urgent. What does it mean to control the flow of information, the version of a story that becomes an accepted version of truth? And how far (or low) will human beings go to manipulate and take ownership of that narrative? What are the real, lasting threats posed by a delusion of self and others? A certain President and his abhorrently loose relationship with facts and self-awareness often came to mind throughout the production’s 80-minute running time.
Suddenly Last Summer is brief, to the point, yet lastingly haunting, much like Catherine’s final memories of Sebastian. As the Chicago days grow longer and evenings began to call residents outdoors, theater fans will be glad they penciled Raven Theatre’s efficient and effective offering onto their indoor entertainment calendars.
Suddenly Last Summer
6157 N Clark, Chicago, IL
Through June 17
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic and blogger. On March 29, 2018, her first book, Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team, was published by Eckhartz Press. She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob and their cats, Wendy and Lisa. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.