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Best remembered for its faithful film adaptation yet rarely performed on stage, Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer continues to be a shocking play. Meredith Ensemble Theatre's production, which runs through Sunday, captures the tension and dread that lies beneath Williams' text.
Upon arriving onto the estate of Southern belle Mrs. Venable, Dr. Cukrowicz's presence becomes known that he intends to discover if Mrs. Venable's niece is mad or not. The niece, according to the lady, has been telling an outrageous story about how Sebastian, Mrs. Venable's son, died suddenly last summer.
For the matriarch, Sebastian was the light of her life, many townsfolk claiming they were a couple. "Violet and Sebastian, they would say," she says with pride. Sebastian stayed celibate for all the years he was married to Catharine, yet spoke of attractive people as if they were items on a menu — at least, that's what Catharine claims.
Mrs. Venable cannot forgive Catharine for telling the lavish story of Sebastian's death, for she thinks Catharine murdered Sebastian. Makes perfect sense: murder Sebastian and inherit Mrs. Venable's fortune — one which Sebastian wanted to keep out of the greedy noses of Catharine's brother and his wife, who pay an unexpected visit to the Venable estate.
When Catharine does arrive, she seems a bit off-balance. At first, we presume it is because of the trauma brought upon her by witnessing her husband's murder. Yet, as the play progresses and the details of Sebastian's past and his gruesome murder emerge, we begin to realize that sometimes an extraordinary story could be true.
Director Steven Roten, who also designed the effective projections, has given great, detailed attention to the psychological fabric of each character. If Streetcar taught us anything, it is that Williams does not shy away from plunging into the dark corners of the human psyche. Roten's work as a director allows this production to become a 90-minute aria of paranoia and uncertainty — and yes, that is a high compliment.
Williams' characters are always on the brink of a breakdown; tension is high as characters withhold the truth as others are playing them for their material possessions. They cling to memories and motives to define themselves just as others around them try to obtain things like wills and estates. As for the audience, we are not given the truth that is being withheld, creating an atmosphere of anxiety and helplessness for the characters and the viewers.
The cast played their respective roles well. Sarah Koop's domineering matriarch was subdued a bit, despite Williams' fiery dialogue, but Koop offered a more heartfelt interpretation, which brought a wholly different dimension to Mrs. Venable. Chris Milner applied appropriate restraint for Dr. Cukrowicz, while Emileigh Eiden and Benjamin Tarelton were appropriately unrestrained as the wildly greedy George and Mrs. Holly. Chloe Lang and Hannah Johns' supporting roles shone and offered some comedic relief in an otherwise weighty story.
It was Chelsea Dickens' performance that embodied Roten's masterful understanding of the play. Not only does the play ride on Catharine's presence as keeper of the truth, the actress is tasked with navigating a nearly 10-minute monologue that concludes the show. Dickens did so quite beautifully, building the tension up to a shocking climax that elicited gasps from the audience. Though the play is only 90-minutes, in the hands of this talented team of actors and designers, it became a must-see evening of psychological dread.
With Williams, it's more fun than it sounds.
Suddenly Last Summer continues through Sunday, November 13. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.