The New Orleans Garden District in the steamy south of the United States, 1936. Well-off widow Ms Violet Venable is greying, and not as strong as she used to be. She and adult son Sebastian were travelling partners for many years, until his last trip. He didn’t return, and Violet’s need to know why drives Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams.
Violet (Jennifer Vuletic) has suspicions of Sebastian’s travelling companion, cousin Catherine Holly (Kate Cole). Catherine rants about her time with Sebastian given any audience or opportunity, accounts Violet finds unpalatable. As a result, Violet has hidden Catherine from public view in a number of private – quite expensive – asylums.
Tired of uncertainty and expense, Violet wants to extract what happened from Catherine and end this messy episode. She’s arranged for young Doctor Cukrowicz (Charles Purcell) – who prefers “Dr Sugar” following his Polish surname’s meaning – a lobotomy specialist, to enable this.
In a play described as “Southern Gothic”, our opening scene was unexpected. As Dr Sugar joined Violet in Sebastian’s garden, Purcell took on poses inspecting the greenery, as would a bodybuilder, exploring the sensuality of the setting. Querying glances at the audience earned some surprised laughter. Some might find that this opening risks putting us in the wrong frame of mind.
We proceeded to a lengthy scene of exposition. Matters such as Violet’s uncritical appreciation of Sebastian unfolded with a southern torpor, and certain needless repetition. More useful was Vuletic’s lascivious actions towards the much younger man, and Purcell’s responses, as someone interested in securing patronage for his clinic. We saw how Dr Sugar might be the new man to serve the vanity of Ms Venable.
Catherine’s arrival showed Violet’s readiness to scorn her maid Miss Foxhill (Chanalla Macri) for not following instructions. Accompanying Catherine is Sister Felicity (Caroline Lee), seemingly here to ensure compliance with rules more than safeguard Catherine’s interests.
Late arrivals to the garden are Catherine’s mother Mrs Holly (Zoe Boesen) and brother George (Harvey Zielinski). Violet is not so affectionate towards this family only by marriage. And, the Hollys aren’t here for moral support. They seek to muffle Catherine’s voice, fearing a displeased Violet would tie up their much-needed share of Sebastian’s estate.
Sometimes you see another audience member looking at their watch as you wonder why a decent production isn’t working for you either. This may be due to some combination of individually minor issues.
Vuletic showed an outstanding ability to maintain her accent, and Cole was mostly reliable. Purcell was generally pretty good, but sometimes it’s Jimmy Stewart, others Bill Clinton, or something else again. Perhaps the characterisations could show greater depth. Suddenly Last Summer has that gothic trait of a secret too horrible to be shared. We need to have tension around the inevitable revelation.
Towards this, there seems scope to make Dr Sugar a more ambiguous character given his apparent conflict of interest between duty to a patient and satisfying a patron. Cole’s Catherine started off looking disturbed as she tested the patience of Lee’s pious Sister, but this wasn’t sustained.
An account of her deeds around a debutante ball wasn’t quite convincing. Perhaps this early take on Catherine is too nice to be credible as the villain Violet suspects, allowing us to discount certain possibilities before Catherine’s secret is told.
At times characters seemed to be trapped on stage, engaging in walks to nowhere. At others Stephen Nicolazzo’s direction was more effective. The approaches between Dr Sugar and Violet or Catherine suggested their engagement in a dance of desires.
Minor roles seemed quite unrewarding, with most relegated to looking on tensely for extended periods of time as Catherine related events leading up to her trip, and its disturbing conclusion. This scene was afflicted by Dr Sugar’s unedifying echoing of aspects of the accounts.
However, Cole makes the most of her opportunity, imbuing her tale with internal conflict arising from her affection for Sebastian and discomfort at his turns of thoughtless behaviour. How unfortunate that the work ends with a statement so obvious as to be an anti-climax, one that cannot be remedied by an attempt to distract with a change of lighting.
In our times of 24-hour news, wannabe Instagram influencers and excesses like botox injections, Suddenly Last Summer might have lost some ability to shock. Regardless, the performances of this opening night performance were good, and this is an opportunity to see one of Tennessee Williams’ less-performed works. Sebastian’s garden may yet evolve to show thorns amongst its blooms in later performances.
Suddenly Last Summer
Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre, Rear 2 Chapel St, St Kilda
Performance: Wednesday 10 October 2018 – 8.00pm
Season continues to 4 November 2018
Information and Bookings: www.redstitch.net
Image: Kate Cole and Caroline Lee feature in Suddenly Last Summer – photo by Jodie Hutchinson
Review: Jason Whyte