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Gone South

Vagabond’s Take On Tennessee Willliams Brings The Southern But Not The Dandy

THE BELLES TOLL FOR THEE: (from left) Laurel Peyrot and Binnie Ritchie Holum wring what they can from Suddenly Last Summer.

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 6/8/2005

Suddenly Last Summer By Tennessee Williams

At the Vagabond Theatre through July 3

At an open house last Sunday morning, a real estate agent of a certain age, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and flowered blouse, breezed toward a small crowd of restless house-hunters in Bolton Hill and, in a lilting Southern accent and patient smile, explained her delay thus: “Well, I just said to myself, ‘It’s far too lovely a day to worry about being a few minutes late.’”

It was a Tennessee Williams moment, and appeared to augur well for that afternoon’s performance of Suddenly Last Summer at the Vagabond. Unfortunately, none of the cast in Barry Bach’s production manages to convey the effortless, disarming charm that so many of Williams’ characters—particularly heroines of a certain age—wear as a shield against the social turpitude invariably closing in on their small, hot, Southern world.

Rather, Bach’s actors hammer away at Williams’ florid lines, bruising them to a deep purple, until they become as sickly sweet as the lavender paint splashed against the set walls. Rarely has so much sighing and seething and speechifying signified so little.

This turgid production does have the virtue, at least, of exposing the flaws in the script, by displaying them in such high relief. Suddenly Last Summer is not a good play. It lacks the well-made plots and onstage romantic fireworks of Williams’ troika of perfect melodramas: The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and A Streetcar Named Desire. The trademark poetical language is here, in spades, but without a strong narrative scheme to move the words along, their grandiloquence turns playwright from poet to poetaster.

What plot does exist is mostly a foil for two interminable monologues by two drama queens, one old and one young, each in thrall to her own humid fantasies of a relationship to a dead guy named Sebastian. The first speech belongs to Mrs. Venable (Binnie Ritchie Holum), aged mother of the recently expired Sebastian. From her wheelchair throne, Venable addresses herself to the director of the state lunatic asylum, Dr. Cukrowicz (Mark Maculuso), hoping to persuade the head shrinker to lobotomize her niece, so that the young woman—who was traveling with Sebastian when he died—will no longer be able to spread lurid tales of just what the dude was doing before he kicked the b. at the beach.

The girl, Catherine, played by Laurel Peyrot, is already institutionalized at some sort of church-run loony bin, but the nuns have not been able to muzzle her, and she persists in telling scandalous tales about Sebastian’s un-Christian behavior on the sand (and in the bathhouse). So, for this one afternoon, Catherine is let loose so that the doctor may interview her and determine her fitness for more serious medicine.

That interview is the second monologue in the play, during which Catherine—with Venable and other family members looking on aghast—hems and haws and hedges and finally comes right out with the awful truth. By this point, Sebastian’s big “secret” is not only out of the closet, but has been all but paraded up and down the stage in a tutu, and the doctor’s ambiguous verdict gives new meaning to the word anti-climax. Maybe this twaddle was shocking (and halfway believable) when it was first staged in 1958, but it’s just plain ridonkulous now.

Of all the players, Holum is the only one who appears to be impersonating a character, rather than impersonating an actor, though her portrayal of the old bitch Venable hits the imperious note too fast and too hard and leaves her nowhere to go but into a sort of insane Katharine Hepburn head-spasm routine. The few really good lines in the play belong to Catherine, but Peyrot’s performance is so self-conscious that we are too distracted by the actor’s mannerisms to care about the character’s distress. Peyrot does Catherine as if the girl were one of those spoken-word poets, slowing down each . . . sentence . . . and then
speedingitbackupinprepar . . . ation . . .
for . . . the . . . fade . . . (exhale). Maculuso’s delivery of the doctor’s lines is porn-video bad, and his bleached hair and ill-fitting white suit is so obvious a costume that you half expect him tear off the duds and invite the ladies to a ménage on the fake veranda.

Apparently buoyed by the frenzied interpretations of the leading ladies, Sharon J. Zelefky takes her bit part as Catherine’s mercenary mother to outrageous heights. And as Catherine’s kid brother, poor Mike Coene has to deliver a line about how brilliantly tailored his jacket is, though his actual sleeves go down past his knuckles. He pulls it off, but Debra Tracey should win the award for keeping a straight face through all this, with her depiction of stern Sister Felicity—especially when the New Orleans sound-effects track kicks in over the PA and instead of buzzing mosquitoes we hear what sounds like cows in heat. Stella!

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