A Hothouse of Secrets: Shaking the Tree's "Suddenly Last Summer"
By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly Last Summer" (at Shaking the Tree through May 2nd) concerns the mysterious death of a young poet, and Williams introduces the story poetically. In wealthy matron Violet Venable's "pre-Edenic" garden, she shows young Dr. Cokrowicz her Venus Flytrap plants, and recalls a trip she and her son Sebastian--the deceased poet--took to watch newly hatched turtles slaughtered by birds of prey as they attempted to reach the sea. This accumulation of details guides the viewer into a savage world, where those with power attempt to coerce and destroy those without. At its center is Violet, played with masterful hauteur and self-righteousness by Jacklyn Maddux. Violet has invited Dr. Cokrowicz--a smooth, restrained Matthew Kerrigan--with dark intentions. She will underwrite his pioneering work with lobotomies, if he will perform one on her niece, who was with Sebastian during his death, and, now institutionalized, is spreading lurid stories about his behavior; stories Violet wants silenced. The play is a hothouse affair, unfolding over one afternoon. The niece, Catherine, arrives, with an attending nun, as do her mother, and brother George. Leveraging the situation further, Violet has withheld the latter two's inheritance from Sebastian's will, threatening to do so in perpetuity, should they not convince Catherine to be silent. There is much human ugliness on display here, and director Samantha Van Der Merwe, does not shy from it, wringing some moments of almost tortuous cruelty from the family dynamics. Violet possesses a seemingly compulsive need to view her dead son as a charismatic, beatific artist, and will use all her influence and resources to protect her vision. Opposite her is Catherine, a wounded, rebellious spirit, captured expertly by Beth Thompson. Traumatized and hostile toward pretense, Catherine is incapable of playing along as her family would like. Williams' play was scandalous at the time for its forthright suggestions of Sebastian's homosexuality, a trait Violet seems to have willed herself not to notice, and which Catherine accepted. The play also hints at a sexual assault suffered by Catherine, which fractured her psyche, and for which she was shunned. The handling of these then-taboo subjects is intricate, as Williams weaves them into his cold hierarchies of violence and status. In the middle is Dr. Cockrowicz, an outsider tugged at by both his ambition, and an inherent compassion. The scene in which he administers a truth drug to Catherine is mesmerizing, with Van Der Marwe allowing space for Kerrigan to methodically prepare and administer the shot. The doctor's belief in science's power to penetrate and heal the mind is completely corrupted for the audience by his championing of lobotomies, an irony underscoring Williams' dark vision. Thompson's handling of Catherine's recounted trip is superb, as she brings the heroine to life as a brittle, yet fully-rounded person. Van Der Marwe augments the long speeches with black and white video, a vibrant touch. In the smaller roles, Steve Vanderzee brings both welcome humor, and a frightening temper to Catherine's brother George, a petty man consumed with status, and Rebecca Ridenhour imbues Violet's assistant Miss Foxhill with the frayed nerves and on-edge vigilance, which capture what one suspects it would be like to serve a tyrant of her type. "Suddenly Last Summer" is an odd play, a mystery about speaking the unspeakable, that escalates to life and death stakes. It employs the tools and mechanics of the then-new field of psychology (which I'm always a total sucker for) to, in a sense, coerce the repressive temper of its time into facing topics it denied. In description it can sound overheated and hysterical, but onstage, in a successful production like Shaking the Tree's, it's a weighty, moving experience, one which makes confronting its darkness worthwhile. "Suddenly Last Summer" at Shaking the Tree through May 2nd