by Tennessee Williams
United Players
Jericho Arts Centre
1675 Discovery
September 9 - October 2
604 224 8007, ext. 2

Tennessee Williams sure had issues.  But he managed to transform them into great art in plays like The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire

Suddenly Last Summer isn’t in their league.  It’s more a sketch than a fully developed play.  But it has the signature Tennessee Williams style and tells the familiar, autobiographically-driven story of an overbearing mother, fragile sister, and gay artist/son struggling to survive in a devouring world.          

In a decaying 1930s New Orleans garden we meet wealthy old Mrs. Venable and a young doctor whose Polish name means sugar.  Sweet Dr. Sugar’s specialty is giving lobotomies to criminal psychopaths, and Mrs. Venable is trying to convince him to ply his trade on her niece Catherine.          

Catherine has been telling a sordid story about the death on a Spanish beach of Mrs. Venable’s beloved son, Sebastian.  He was a poet and a seeker after God who had spent 25 summers traveling together with his mother to elite resorts. But suddenly last summer Mrs. Venable had fallen ill and Catherine had replaced her as Sebastian’s companion.  Mrs. V accuses Catherine of causing Sebastian’s death and slandering his reputation.

Catherine has been locked up in a lunatic asylum.  Now Dr. Sugar will force her to tell the truth about Sebastian, a truth so ugly that she may pay for it by having her brain cut out!

Williams never shied away from melodrama nor was he subtle with symbolism.  The centrepiece of Sebastian’s garden is a Venus flytrap.  The play’s Darwinian world abounds with predatory images: lions and wolves, shrieking, flesh-eating birds feasting on newly hatched turtles. And a pack of naked, feral young boys tearing apart the man who preyed on them.

Catherine’s slightly cartoonish mother and brother try to intervene between her and Mrs. Venable out of self-interest, but the play is ultimately a ghoulish duel between the two women for possession of dead Sebastian’s memory. 

It’s a mismatch on paper but Williams evens the odds, and Stephane Kirkland’s United Players production pits two worthy adversaries against each other with the doctor, nicely understated by Daniel Thomas, an effective referee.

Played by Brenda McDonald, Mrs. Venable is tiny, elderly and physically fragile.  But she’s rich and powerful enough to command sweet Doctor Lobotomy.  In an excellent performance, MacDonald mounts a ferocious attack with the precise intention of a mother who will never let go of her son, even in death.  

Also fine is Cherise Clarke, whose sultry Catherine has the desperate, drugged quality of a young Blanche Dubois.  Jumpy as a cat on a hot tin roof (Williams thought up the best titles), she makes the harsh, hallucinatory truths of Sebastian’s sordid story, and her own, compelling enough to trump even a mother’s blind, possessive love.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Tuesday, September 27, 2005 10:06 AM
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