Tennessee Williams' exotic orchid of a play, "Suddenly Last Summer," is like a chamber opera in three movements, full of overheated characters, incendiary themes and passionate arias. But the performances in this Trinity Rep production aren't singing the same song.

Corrections were made to this review on Oct. 12, 2005.

Tennessee Williams’ exotic orchid of a play, “Suddenly Last Summer,” is like a chamber opera in three movements, full of overheated characters, incendiary themes and passionate arias. But the performances in this Trinity Rep production aren’t singing the same song. Directed unsteadily by Mark Sutch, the formidable Mrs. Venable lacks the necessary bite of even her Venus flytrap. Traumatized Catharine plays her pain for real, while her greedy family veers toward caricature. Not even the good doctor at the end of the play seems to know what to make of it all as he watches the heroine suddenly leave the stage and exit the theater through the audience.

The first of the work’s movements centers on Violet Venable (Barbara Meek), the wheelchair-bound millionaire mother of poet-aesthete Sebastian, who died a violent and shocking death the previous summer in Europe. He was in the company of cousin Catharine (Miriam Silverman), who supplanted his mother as traveling companion after Violet’s minor stroke made her less desirable in attracting the right crowd for Sebastian.

Mrs. Venable is determined to keep the psychologically unhinged Catharine from telling the scandalous story surrounding her son’s death, so she has invited a special doctor to her gray-garden manse in New Orleans. Her goal is to convince the medic (Fred Sullivan Jr.) that her mentally unstable niece is certifiably mad and in need of his experimental lobotomy to silence her lurid speech. In exchange, she offers to foot the bill for the doc’s underfunded research.

Venable is one of Williams’ great grand dames — majestic, powerful and delusional. But Meek lacks the regal fierceness, inner terror and feral desperation of the woman, determined at any cost to keep the memory of her sensitive son alive. For the play’s long opening near monologue, Meek is far from the powerful personage who causes personal assistants, lesser relatives and even nuns to quake — and she’s unable to sustain Violet’s purple passages in Williams’ lush symbolic writing.

Even less a presence is Dr. “Sugar.” He is played here not by the traditionally cast handsome young man facing a moral dilemma, whom both women are trying to win over, but by the middle-aged Sullivan (a memorable Falstaff in last year’s “The Henriad” at the Rep). The actor is less the conflicted, enigmatic man on the cusp of a career than an unctuous grant-seeker well versed in procuring a benefactor’s gift.

The second movement brings in Catharine to the overgrown garden of clinging vines and carnivorous plants. Here her greedy mother (Cynthia Strickland) and brother (Matt Robinson) beg her to keep the tale of her cousin’s death to herself so that they might all share in the Venable family fortune. Strickland and Robinson play to extremes. Robinson is snide and sinister, while Strickland is alternately dotty and doting, and willing to sacrifice her daughter for the rewards of a will.

The third and climactic movement comes when Catharine, fueled by the doctor’s “truth” serum, recounts in horrific detail everything that happened last summer, her account of procurement, pedophilia, virtual incest and cannibalism revealed in Brian J. Lilienthal’s too literal white lighting.

Silverman’s Catharine is convincingly a woman possessed and haunted by the truth. Her perf evokes a series of hard jazz riffs, full of schizophrenic touches in mood and modality. But while this is effective at times, it doesn’t lead to the inevitable high notes at the play’s reveal. Her final exit is more a psychotic surrender than a climactic exorcism.

The production’s lack of respect for or understanding of Williams is perhaps illustrated before the play even starts. In a pre-curtain speech, Strickland, complete with honeyed Southern drawl, gives the silence-cell-phones, unwrap-the-candy, please-subscribe speech. Welcome to Tennessee wronged.

Suddenly Last Summer

Dowling Theater, Providence, R.I.; 281 seats; $50 top

Production

A Trinity Repertory Company presentation of a play in one act by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Mark Sutch.

Creative

Sets, Fritz Szabo; costumes, William Lane; lighting, Brian J. Lilienthal; sound, Peter Sasha Hurowitz; production stage manager, Jennifer Sturch. Opened Oct. 5, 2005. Reviewed Oct. 8. Runs through Nov. 6. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.

Cast

Mrs. Venable - Barbara Meek Dr. Cukrowicz - Fred Sullivan Jr. Miss Foxhill - Robin Galloway George Holly - Matt Robinson Mrs. Holly - Cynthia Strickland Catharine Holly - Miriam Silverman Sister Felicity - Janice Duclos
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