"We all use each other and that’s
what we think of as love," says Catherine Holly in Tennessee
Williams’ "Suddenly Last Summer," The Sackett Group’s
inaugural show at the Brooklyn Music School Playhouse.
Indeed there’s a lot of using in this play, but not too much love.
First produced in 1959 as "Garden District" (a section of New Orleans), a double-bill that also featured Williams’ short play "Something Unspoken," "Suddenly Last Summer" is a mature work that came after many masterpieces - "The Glass Menagerie" (1944), "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1947), "Summer and Smoke" (1948), "The Rose Tattoo" (1951) and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1955). So, there are in "Suddenly Last Summer," all of Williams’ usual culprits - the overpowering older woman, the vulnerable, sexually repressed young lady, the boorish relative.
But in this production, directed by Robert J. Weinstein, the most important character, Sebastian, the effete son of the rich widow Mrs. Venable (Dorothy Stasney), never appears on stage (except as a wire sculpture of the martyred St. Sebastian). He has died in Europe months before under traumatic circumstances only known to his traveling companion, his distressed and distraught cousin, Catherine Holly (Ellen Lindsay).
Mrs. Venable goes to great lengths to keep those circumstances hidden, even confining Catherine to a mental institution and calling in a doctor whom she attempts to bribe into performing a lobotomy on her niece. Catherine’s plight is complicated by her avaricious mother (Diane Lynne Drew) and boorish brother, George (David Sochet), who want her to keep her mouth shut so Sebastian’s will can be executed without a hitch and the Hollys can receive their inheritance.
"Suddenly Last Summer" unfolds much like a mystery (without the action) as the truth is slowly uncovered. On stage, the first half of the play is dominated by Mrs. Venable, who attempts to cajole and bully Dr. Cukrowitz (Matthew Healy) into submitting to her will. At the same time she creates a pretty good picture of the unusual and unhealthy relationship she once had with her son. The second half is dominated by Catherine, who is at last allowed to tell the real story behind Sebastian’s death.
In the 1959 movie, these two vital roles were played by Katherine Hepburn (who, ironically, so disliked the light in which director Joseph L. Mankiewicz had cast her that she refused to see the final cut) and Elizabeth Taylor, both of whom were nominated for Academy Awards. If Weinstein has not been able to resurrect Hepburn and convince Taylor to somehow shed 46 years and come to Brooklyn, he has certainly found two actresses who do a superb job in recreating these plum roles.
Stasney has a malicious, haughty grace that makes her performance powerful and convincing. And Lindsay is in total control as she skillfully contrasts fragility with spunk.
It would be criminal to discuss this production without mentioning the way set designer John Scheffler has created a lush garden whose vegetation seems to overwhelm and threaten, or lighting designer Michael Hairston, whose use of color and varying intensity is a perfect complement to the set.
Undertaking Williams’ work is certainly a challenge at a time when sound bites and flashing images dominate the media. This is especially so for community theater with its limited resources.
In the first place, the nature of his plays demands accomplished actors; Williams’ plots often center on an action that took place long before the actual time of the play, which focuses on solving interpersonal conflicts. And his dialogue, although lyrical and highly emotional, is also lengthy and sometimes obscure.
In the second place, Williams’ plays demand an audience willing to listen, to explore, to use and stretch its imagination, to understand passion without seeing explicit sex scenes and violence without witnessing bloodshed.
Weinstein has definitely been blessed with the first. Hopefully this run will prove that he has also been favored with the latter.
The Sackett Group’s production of "Suddenly Last Summer" plays through Aug. 7, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 5 pm, at the Brooklyn Music School Playhouse (126 St. Felix Street. at Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene). Tickets are $19. Call SmartTix (212) 868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.