Like the symbolic Venus flytrap in the lush jungle garden where the drama unfolds, “Suddenly Last Summer” is a rare and exotic breed that needs special care to survive. Writing about an egocentric gay aesthete literally devoured by the same adolescent beggars on whom he preyed, and the monstrously overbearing mother so obsessed with her dead son she wants her niece-by-marriage lobotomized to protect his memory, Tennessee Williams was at his most ripe, even lurid, here. In Mark Brokaw’s tentative production for Roundabout, the ghoulish one-act only intermittently achieves its full effect.
Those moments when the 1958 play does spark to life in all its macabre, sometimes horrifyingly funny Southern Gothic splendor are mostly due to the searing performance of Carla Gugino as Catharine Holly, the damaged beauty New Orleans dowager Violet Venable (Blythe Danner) is so eager to silence. From the moment she appears, observing the action through a window like an insect trapped behind glass, Gugino (the sole unscathed survivor of “After the Fall” on Broadway two seasons back) is mesmerizing.
Scared and defensive, Catharine sees the alarming fate that awaits her and has no ally but herself to escape it. Institutionalized under Mrs. Venable’s instructions since she returned from the fateful trip the previous summer and began “babbling” about her cousin Sebastian’s death, Catharine is broken but not irrevocably so, outnumbered but not without the fortitude to fight back. As she revisits the past under the influence of sodium pentothal, pouring out the shocking details of what happened on a beach in Spain, Catharine becomes possessed by the vision. She gains steadily in strength as lighting designer David Weiner slowly drenches Gugino in a blinding white glare.
That stark light of the truth and its battle with shadowy illusion is the central conflict of most of Williams’ work. The illusion here is represented by Mrs. Venable, as both self-deception and calculated cover-up.
Cruelly discarded by her son when a partial stroke made her an unfit traveling companion and unable to fulfill her unofficial role as procuress, Violet sees Sebastian — a poet whose supposed gifts were evident mainly to her — as a creator and Catharine as a destroyer. Violet’s insistence on denying the circumstances of Sebastian’s death is as much about salvaging her own dwindling connection to youth and vitality as about ensuring that her son remains unsullied.
In the unmistakable tradition of willfully deluded Williams’ women, Mrs. Venable refuses to acknowledge evidence that Catharine throws in her face. “I came out in the French Quarter years before I came out in the Garden District,” says Catharine in one of Williams’ more droll lines, indicating she was well aware of her use to Sebastian. She also reveals her cousin’s realization that his youth, as much as Violet’s, was over, giving his death the air of ritualistic self-sacrifice to a cruel God.
It takes a feverish atmosphere to sustain this play’s psychological and physical violence, and Brokaw’s production misses that mark. At times it’s as if the drama were strangled, perhaps by all the twisting vines that snake around Santo Loquasto’s steamy tropical garden set. Most of all, there’s a fundamental imbalance in the central battle between two formidable women.
Danner is an actress of impeccable elegance and intelligence, but in much of her performance, Mrs. Venable’s physical uncertainty (she walks with a cane and is frequently breathless) seems to have compromised her command. In the opening scene especially, in which Violet teases Dr. Cukrowicz (Gale Harold) into her web, hinting at a generous donation for his underfunded neurosurgery department if he will agree to operate on Catharine, Danner seems too soft and frail to be capable of cold manipulation.
She gains power and icy imperiousness in the midsection, fueled by Violet’s contempt for Catharine’s mother (Becky Ann Baker) and feckless brother (Wayne Wilcox), who are eager to secure their $50,000 apiece from Sebastian’s will.
Speaking in a refined accent that mixes Southern cadences with faux-English tones, Danner does a lovely job with some of Williams’ more lyrical passages, reliving the days when she and Sebastian were a glamorous couple touring sophisticated foreign destinations. “We would carve out each day of our lives like a piece of sculpture,” she says, getting lost in the reverie while slyly checking to see that her audience, the doctor, is rapt. But her Violet is too readily sidelined; she’s a dragon no longer capable of breathing fire or inspiring fear. Without the necessary armor, she’s not a fair match for Gugino’s Catharine, which undermines the stakes of the drama.
Baker and Wilcox have amusing moments as the hovering vultures. But Harold is bland and lacking intensity as the conflicted doctor. He looks uncomfortable for the wrong reasons when Mrs. Venable flirts with him, transferring her incestuous feelings for Sebastian. It takes a more resourceful actor to make this key character more than a handsome cipher.
But regardless of its shortcomings, the production has its rewards thanks to Gugino. She has the grit and vulnerability to be a fine Williams interpreter, not to mention the knack of making his most purple dialogue flow naturally. Gugino’s fierceness when cornered suggests she might make a magnificent Maggie the Cat, and her bruised sensuality hints that somewhere along the line, there could even be a compelling Blanche waiting to be unleashed.