Tennessee Williams himself used the word “stunner” in connection with this one-act psychodrama, and I suppose that in 1958, it might have been.
But, try as I might, I had a hard time feeling too stunned.
I never felt caught up in this story, or truly connected to the characters. The “shocking” ending, tinged with violent death and suggestions of homosexuality, seemed merely curious to me.
A great deal of this was because of the script itself, which is artificial and contrived. A smothering Southern mother invites a young woman, Catharine (Gretchen Oyster), into her garden so she can stage an inquisition into her beloved son’s death. Then a doctor gives Catharine some kind of truth serum.
This is all merely an excuse to gather everyone on stage to listen to Catharine’s extended monologue about what really happened to the son on the beach that summer. We never see the son, we never see the beach. Williams simply has Catharine tell us about it in a histrionic manner. The end.
I suppose this can work - a 1992 Maggie Smith-Natasha Richardson TV movie apparently got it right. But for some reason, this Studio Theatre production never rang true for me.
A collection of nagging details contributed to the problem. For one thing, director Marilyn Langbehn chose to have bird sounds chirping in the background for much of the play. This makes some sense - it takes place in a semi-tropical New Orleans garden. However, it converted all of the ominous pauses, of which this play is rife, into chirpy pauses.
And when two characters are supposedly having a struggle over a wheelchair, neither of them seemed to be trying to get it away from the other. They were merely playing at struggling.
These are minor things, but symbolic of the bigger problems with the production. Most of the actors seemed to be playing at their roles, instead of becoming the characters.
All of them had some fine moments, especially Barbara Gale as the venerable Ms. Venable, Jack Lippard as the doctor, and Phyllis Silver as Mrs. Holly.
But the overall feeling was that everyone was trying just a bit too hard, putting on an accent just a bit too obviously, reading their lines just a bit too histrionically.
I am perfectly willing to concede that this has more to do with my particular tastes than with the talents of those involved. Langbehn is one of the most accomplished directors in Spokane and it’s entirely possible that what she is doing with this play went over my head.
I could feel there was something out there; but I was never quite able to make the connection.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Suddenly Last Summer” Spokane Civic Theatre’s Studio Theatre, Friday, continues through March 30, 325-2507