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The State of Tennessee


"The set may be as unrealistic as the decor of a dramatic ballet. It represents part of a mansion of Victorian Gothic style in the Garden District of New Orleans on a late afternoon, between late summer and early fall. The interior is blended with a fantastic garden which is more like a tropical jungle, or forest, in the prehistoric age of giant fern-forests when living creatures had flippers turning to limbs and scales to skin. The colors of this jungle-garden are violent, especially since it is steaming with heat after rain. There are massive tree-flowers that suggests organs of a body, torn out, still glistening with undried blood; there are harsh cries and sibilant hissings and thrashing sounds in the garden as if it were inhabited by beasts, serpents and birds, all of a savage nature."

That is the opening description from Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer. It's an expressionistic landscape, to say the least. In fact, the paragraph comes perilously close to what is called in the film industry "hyping the script," for it is easier to imagine in the mind's eye than to actually create in the real world. I'm glad I'm not the designer who is expect to make "tree-flowers that suggest organs of a body, torn out, still glistening with undried blood."

In Dog and Pony's recent production at the CAC, director John Grimsley took Williams at his word. Off to one side of the somewhat abstract courtyard was a screen on which large flowers (of bright, if not quite "violent" hue) were projected and among which shadow humans danced a brief, dramatic ballet to the eerie cries and hisses of Ken Field's saxophone. Both Williams and Grimsley are trying to aim us in the right direction for what follows. This play is not a somewhat loosened, poetic presentation of reality -- like A Streetcar Named Desire or The Glass Menagerie, for instance. It is several degrees further removed into the world of dream and symbol. We cannot say with certainty what actually took place, but we are deeply moved by subterranean currents in which the psychic and natural worlds seem mysteriously linked.

If the set is a clue to the kind of world we are entering, the use of monologue is the means. For the play is basically a war of monologues: Violet Venable's ode to her son, Sebastian, and his cousin Catherine Holly's phantasmagoric tale of Sebastian's death. Around this, there are more mundane conflicts, having to do with money (the source of Violet's power). Dr. Cuckrowicz must decide whether to give Catherine a lobotomy (refusal on his part will cost him Violet's financial support). Meanwhile, Catherine's mother and brother pressure the girl to heel under and keep quiet so that Violet will not contest Sebastian's will. Harmonizing the cheesy, crypto-comic greed of brother George (it's written "Gawge" in the script) with the mysterious hallucinatory flights of Violet and Catherine is most difficult trick of the evening, and proved the major stumbling block of this otherwise admirable revival.

Maggie Eldred gave us a decisive and tyrannical Violet, whose final lunge at Catherine was the pathetic physical expression of her obvious desire to annihilate the girl. As Catherine, Diana Shortes showed a distraught, desperate young woman, giving in to the almost voluptuous pleasure of the "truth" drug and her nightmarish recital. Scott Jefferson's Dr. Cuckrowicz was a fascinating creation; a tentative and introverted idealist. Luis Barroso's Foxhill was an unobtrusive pessimist with a Jack Benny sense of timing.

Suddenly Last Summer was an adjunct of the Tennessee Williams Festival, and among the other Festival offerings, I particularly enjoyed a one-man show called A Distant Country Called Youth. This was a reading of some of Williams' early letters, adapted for the stage and directed by Steve Lawson.

The format could not have been simpler. Actor Richard Thomas, wearing a white suit and bow tie, moved between three lecterns, reading the letters, while taking frequent libations. These ranged from French champagne (during Tennessee's boyhood European trip in the company of his Episcopal minister grandfather) to a series of potent-looking martinis, as Williams emerged into his inimitable public persona. Wisely realizing that Williams was, in deed, inimitable, Thomas did not attempt to mimic the well-known voice or mannerism -- except for an occasional little nod in that direction, as in the characteristic bark of laughter that convulsed the playwright at the most unexpected moments. But Thomas did subtly transform himself from an enthusiastic, callow aspirant to a salty, somewhat jaded, but deeply serious playwright. And the letters, themselves, are a joy and an inspiration.

Dr. Cuckrowicz (Scott Jefferson) gets Violet Venable's (Maggie Eldred) side of the story in Dog & Pony's recent revival of Suddenly Last Summer.
  • Dr. Cuckrowicz (Scott Jefferson) gets Violet Venable's (Maggie Eldred) side of the story in Dog & Pony's recent revival of Suddenly Last Summer.

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