Forget the movie. Gore Vidal greatly opened up and lengthened (i.e. mutilated) Tennessee Williams’ oneact Suddenly, Last Summer for director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s black-and-white film adaptation in 1959. This alliance further estranged Vidal from the playwright.
The movie left us with some memorable images, like Katharine Hepburn, the satanic matriarch descending in her private elevator. Or a drugged-up Montgomery Clift, disfigured from a recent traffic accident, obliterating the image of the very pretty boy he had been.
Missing also from the film are clear references to homosexuality, Williams’ first, as the love that dare not speak its name was still taboo when the play opened in early 1958. When we return to the stage play he intended, now on stage at downtown’s Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St., in the mounting from Rarely Done Productions, we see that one word can indeed be worth a thousand pictures.
When Suddenly opened, Williams was seeing a psychiatrist in his bleakest, darkest period. He said of the process that if he paid to get rid of his demons, he would lose his angels as well. Not to fear, his demons are ascendant this time.
Suddenly first appeared on a bill of one-acts titled Garden District after the New Orleans neighborhood, also the locale for several Anne Rice novels. The other half of the bill, Something Unspoken, also touches on the theme of homosexuality, but even more subtly. Less often performed today, it was produced in a package of Williams’ one-acts at Syracuse Stage in January 1996.
There may be seven characters in the action, but most of the play consists of two lengthy, contrasting monologues about the same absent character. Sebastian, the son of wealthy, powerful Violet Venable (Rosemary Palladino-Leone) had died the previous summer. That word “suddenly” is put first in the title to emphasize how unexpected and abrupt the death was. Tension begins when Mrs. Venable seeks to lobotomize Sebastian’s cousin Catherine Holly (Sharon Sorkin), who was with him at the time of death, because, the older woman argues, she is babbling insanely about what took place at that sudden death. There is an element of suspense here, but no one present is going to be charged with murder.
Names are never randomly chosen in a Williams play, and we are certainly expected to remember that “Sebastian” is not simply a name that would appear in a cultivated family but it also evokes the early Christian martyr who was slain by having his body pierced with arrows. Statues of the saint, looking a bit like a tall pincushion, were once seen commonly in churches. Less certain is that Williams expected us to remember that Oscar Wilde, the most prominent gay martyr, took the pseudonym Sebastian after his disgrace and incarceration. Hints equally obscure as these appear in Something Unspoken.
The reactive character, but not a detective, is the psychiatrist Dr. Cukrowicz (Jimmy Curtin), whose name, he explains, is Polish for “sugar.” To him Violet Venable spills out all the love of a worshipful mother, how her son was a poet and genius, even though he produced only one poem a year, after nine months’ gestation (hint, hint). She attributes the death to a heart attack, but portentously remembers predatory birds devouring sea turtles on the Galapagos Islands.
The more she talks, the more evidence she gives us to doubt her. Despite being a bit disabled (she is often in a wheelchair), Mrs. Venable vigorously denies having suffered a stroke, insisting that she suffered only an aneurysm. And she claims that Sebastian never aged over 20 years, as if his talent and willpower were sufficient to overcome the effects of time.
Director Dan Tursi works a sublime chemistry between the tall, elegant Palladino-Leone as Violet and soft-spoken Jimmy Curtin. As Violet becomes more strident and insistent, Cukrowicz becomes quieter, more hesitant. Palladino-Leone is already the go-to girl for grande dames, but Curtin is more surprising. Usually cast in madcap and outrageous roles such as the Tom Lehrer musical Tomfoolery, Curtin’s dulcet tenor starts out sounding empathetic and soothing but still conveys a note of doubt.
Dr. Cukrowicz hails from the underfunded state facility Lyons View, where a lobotomy might be administered, and so the possibly insane Catherine has to be transferred from a private, Catholic institution. This introduces Irish-accented Sister Felicity (Heather Roach), dressed in the now-discarded, high-winged Sisters of Charity habit. She witnesses all that ensues.
Most of the noise arising between the two big monologues, Violet’s and Catherine’s, pours forth from vulgar, grasping relatives, the Hollys, Catherine’s family. Brother George (J. Allan Orton) has started wearing Sebastian’s white summer suits, and Mrs. Holly (Kate Huddleston) can’t wait to get her hands on all of the inheritance. Meanwhile, Violet’s servant, Miss Foxhill (Dorothy Lennon, almost unrecognizable in a large wig), tries to keep the jackals at bay.
All the exposition heightens the anticipation for Catherine’s entrance. Tursi’s hand, aided by CNY Costumes, enhances her visual separation. Actress Sorkin arrives with vivid black page boy hair above a brilliant scarlet dress, whereas everyone else is in white, pastel or muted prints. Williams buffs in the audience know that the threat of lobotomy brings special autobiographical resonance. The playwright never forgave his mother for lobotomizing his troubled sister Rose, the model for Laura in The Glass Menagerie.
As Catherine begins to speak, a model of sobriety and clarity, her articulateness seems to undercut Violet’s diatribes against her. But she’s on a long journey, and with Williams first impressions are there so that they can be overturned. We believe that Sebastian was handsome, and we can see that Catherine is beautiful, and they were cousins . . . . no, that does not imply the temptations in incest. Catherine admits to having loved Sebastian, but only in the way he would allow, “kind of a motherly way.” There’s the word that crackles. We are also losing confidence in Catherine’s balance as she plants a wet smacker on Dr. Cukrowicz’s lips, although he has given her no sign that he’s fishing for her affection.
Only a spoiler can supply some of the details, but we are sure (Violet’s horror confirms) that Sebastian suffered a gruesome murder, reminiscent of the end of Euripides’ The Bacchae. It was the recognition of his sexual preferences that brought him down, suddenly.
Keeping with The District’s new sense of cooperation, Suddenly, Last Summer reunites three cast members of Appleseed’s The Glass Menagerie: Kate Huddleston, J. Allan Orton and Sharon Sorkin. For Sorkin, the bravura Catherine marks an emphatic presence, the victory of the long-distance mad woman. o
This production runs through Saturday, March 23. See Times Table for information.