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THEATER REVIEW Suddenly Last Summer
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Tennessee Williams

At: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street. Tickets: 773-338-2177;; $46. Runs through June 17

New Orleans is a drinking town, but in Suddenly Last Summer old Violet Venable has one lone daiquiri while everyone else stays dry. This play demonstrates that terrible things happen when you don't drink in the Big Easy. Or not.

This taut psychological thriller runs just 90 minutes but nonetheless it's as perversely poetic as any of Williams' longer works. With its repeated rhythms, words and phrases, its fraught situation and rich language—redolent with images of voracious plants, birds and people feeding upon each other in what Sebastian Venable views as God's savage face—Suddenly Last Summer is all about the acting. Capable director Jason Gerace tampers slightly with the script and action, but nonetheless delivers nuanced and assured performances throughout ( even understudy Song Marshall as the housemaid ).

It's set in the 1930s Garden District mansion of patrician Mrs. Venable ( Mary K. Nigohosian ), who holds all the cards—money, connections, dominance over poor relations—while her traumatized niece, Catherine Holly ( Grayson Heyl ), holds none ... except perhaps the horrific truth, for which Mrs. Venable is willing to lobotomize Catherine.

Their disagreement concerns Mrs. Venable's too-adored son, Sebastian, a 40-ish dilettante poet who died in Spain while traveling with Catherine. A heart attack? Or was Sebastian attacked and mutilated by adolescent boys, some of whom he'd paid for sex? Mrs. Venable contends Sebastian was ever-chaste and celibate, so she intends to suppress Catherine's account and fevered vision that the boys "devoured" him.

The play features two extended near-monologs in which Violet and Catherine deliver contrasting portraits of who-and-what Sebastian was. The facilitator is "Dr. Sugar," a nickname rendering of his Polish name, Cukrowicz ( an affable Wardell Julius Clark ), a neurosurgeon pioneering then-new lobotomies. Violet promises major financial support if he neutralizes Catherine, but Dr. Sugar remains impartial.

Nigohosian, Heyl and Clark play their roles with authority and humanity, never letting the language stiffen or trick them into poetic recitation. Nigohosian is particularly adept at avoiding vocal patterns or overplaying peremptory Violet Venable. It's the high level of acting we expect in the best off-Loop productions.

Joanna Iwanicka's mist-shrouded exotic garden scenic design and Claire Chrzan's muted but colorful lighting are most effective, and I really loved Brittany Dee Bodley's costumes, especially the matching off-white outfits for Violet and Dr. Sugar, subtly edged with tan trim.

I'm not among those who think Suddenly Last Summer expresses Williams' gay self-loathing. Gay characters don't fare well in most Williams plays and queerness is addressed only indirectly, but few of his hetero characters do much better! Williams never chooses between gay and straight, but between strong and weak. His gay characters mostly are weak and hidden—but such were times until late in his life.

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