Suddenly, Last Summer is remarkably potent programming in this our #MeToo time, a play wherein the silencing of a woman’s truth is the key pursuit. Red Stitch’s production, directed with the assured, stylish hand of Stephen Nicolazzo, brings Tennessee Williams’ Southern Gothic to life with joy and often power. The show infuses both the histrionic energy of the 1959 film version of the play, and Nicolazzo’s signature camp aesthetic.
While the aesthetic and effete treatment of the male characters is well crafted and certainly not out of place for a modern Tennessee Williams production, and the histrionics pave way for some well earned comic moments, they are directorial choices that threaten to undermine the play’s darker heart. This is a play after all, that begins, (as does Williams’ most famous play), with a queer man dead.
Much has been made of Williams’ tragic heroines as reflections and stretches of his mother Edwina Dakin, and his sister, Rose Williams. Suddenly, Last Summer stands within this known and interpreted history, and has clear parallels and struggles from Williams’ own life, notably his sister’s lobotomy sanctioned by his mother to cease her ‘incessant’ ‘sexual and violent babble’. The lobotomy here is impending rather than performed, as the play’s matriarch, Mrs. Venable, pushes to ‘cut out that story’ of her niece, Catharine Holly’s, brain.
In a size and style appropriate to the Red Stitch stage, the show’s direction and production elements (Eugyeene Teh, Daniel Nixon and Katie Sfetkidis) work in tandem to create the dreamy, heavy and symbolic homosexual garden of Sebastian, the unseen murdered man. From this garden, the production unfolds laden with psychological horror, themes of predation and cannibalism, and the loom of an Old Testament God.
Jennifer Vuletic, as Mrs. Venable, immediately sets the play in motion as she prowls onto the stage and hungrily surveys both task and doctor at hand. She brings to the role a wonderful element of Southern performativity, a facade stretched tightly over a shaking depth of hatred and grief. Teh’s design is worth noting here, bedecking Vuletic in a fringe monstrosity, that is vain, camp and aged all at once.
Playing in a fringe role, Chanella Macri as Miss Foxhill is given the opportunity to inject levity and mirth, and later be rocked by the dramatic waves of the play, and she grabs it with both hands. Here’s hoping her roles increase, as she’s one to watch.
The play is at its strongest when the text is the closest to the audience, and the show barrels into its climax, as Kate Cole’s Catharine Holly recounts the horror of last summer to the assembled party of lurid characters. As stunning as was her Grounded performance, Cole shines as she draws the audience in close, and slowly opens the flood gates of the past. She handles the play’s lyricisms with aplomb, and is able to conjure a timeless spell so rare in the theatre. Equally, Vuletic’s disintegration through the telling is haunting and transfixing, and worth the price of admission alone.
As the show closes, and Catharine’s fate is left unclear, it’s hard to not think of Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate Judiciary Committee testimony. Whilst without cannibalism, metaphoric or not, Ford’s accusations of an attempted rape are the same pre-lobotomy allegations of Rose Williams’ ‘babble’ against her father. This 60 year old play is still able to carry its full weight and deliver an engaging night of theatre.
Images: Jodie Hutchinson