Tennesse Williams’ play "Suddenly Last Summer" is a drama of bitter inter family struggle in steamy upper class New Orleans. The rich aunt, Mrs. Venable, is furious over the death of her favorite son Sebastian. She’s so angry that she’s attempting to bribe a doctor to perform a lobotomy to shut up Catharine Holly, the young cousin who was unable to save Sebastian and who keeps talking about his death. The girl’s silly mother, Mrs. Holly, and her boorish brother, George, are seriously tempted to support this plan so that a will giving them a small fortune each will get out of probate.
The IU Theatre’s production, directed by Howard Jensen, runs in a single act for about an hour and twenty minutes. "Suddenly Last Summer" opens with an extended monologue by Mrs. Venable as she harangues the doctor played by Wolf Sherrill. Megan McKinney was every inch the eloquent, resolute and unrepentant matriarch. Despite this, her speech was relatively dramatically reticent. It was as if we were asked to examine her and her situation at a distance and under glass. During this scene and several later ones Emily Rhodes lent just the right touch as the much put upon maid.
The focus of Aunt Venable’s rage is her young niece Catharine, played by Carolyn Klein. In each action and interaction we saw just how tightly wound, how close to weary hysteria Catharine was. But it wasn’t until the middle of "Suddenly Last Summer" that we got a bit of dramatic tension as Catharine’s mother played to wimpy, bird-like perfection by Kate Braun and her oafish brother done nicely by Erik Anderson, seemed to be seriously considering agreeing to a lobotomy for poor Catharine in order to share in a will that promised fifty-thousand dollars each, after taxes.
"Suddenly Last Summer" ends as it began with an extended monologue, Catharine’s truth serum aided recollection of the gruesome finale of Sebastian’s life at the hands of a gang of beggar children. Catharine links Sebastian’s end to when "suddenly, last summer, he wasn’t young anymore." Carolyn Klein’s performance was impressive in this long dramatic scene. During it, some of the people around me were breathing in rhythm with her. Although, the strain and stress of the story seemed evident in Catharine’s retelling, it seemed to me to just be a filling in of the details that we had long been prepared for. With the end of Catharine’s speech, Aunt Venable still wanted her to have a lobotomy, but at least her brother was ready to give up on the will and get a job. And though her mother appealed to the doctor for some sort of intervention, all he could say was that what Catharine said might be the truth.
The IU Theatre presentation of Tennessee Williams’ "Suddenly Last Summer" is a handsomely mounted, neatly produced and well acted beginning to the season. While I respected the production and appreciated the opportunity to see the play, I didn’t find myself much moved by it. I wonder if audiences were simply more shocked by the character of Sebastian’s life and the quality of his death in the late fifties when it opened.