When the lights come up on Raven Theatre’s “Suddenly Last Summer,” you can practically feel the sweltering, humectant heat of the Louisiana setting.
Unfolding in a voracious garden where a tangled jungle of plants compete for sunlight to survive, Tennessee Williams’ drama is laden with a sense of claustrophobia and life-and-death struggle. The choking humidity in this twisted Eden is palpable.
‘Suddenly Last Summer’
When: Through June 17
Where: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark
Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission
In director Jason Gerace’s staging, Williams’ 90-minute story of brutal oppression and irrecoverable loss is a fascinating psychological thriller. It is also a potentially rage-inducing portrait of the violent lengths people will go to suppress the voice of an inconvenient woman. The plot is as salacious as a Judith Krantz novel but infused throughout by Williams’ feverishly poetic dialogue.
Roughly half a century after its 1958 debut, “Suddenly Last Summer” — set in 1936 — retains its power to shock. Cannibalism, pedophilia, incest and blackmail are integral to the story. So is one of the most barbaric medical practices of the last century. Throughout, set designer Joanna Iwanicka’s fecund sprawl of greenery teems around the dialogue.
Catherine Holly (Grayson Heyl) is the frightened, defiant core of the troubling story. Traumatized over her cousin Sebastian’s murder, Catherine has been confined to an asylum. Her recollections of the circumstances surrounding Sebastian’s death have the power to ruin the family and the dead man’s reputation. If Sebastian’s mother Violet (Mary K. Nigohosian) has her way, Catherine will be lobotomized. Catherine’s memories of her cousin’s death will be erased, and she will be at “peace” — and a hollow, docile shell of her former self.
Before Catherine can be silenced, Dr. Cukrowicz (Wardell Julius Clark) has to agree to the procedure. For much of the one-act drama, he is far from convinced. His description of the operation is matter-of-fact and harrowing: A sharp spike is drilled into the skull near the eye socket. The needle pierces the brain. Previously agitated, talkative patients will awake tranquil, content and largely silent. As Violet points out, even if Catherine does keep “babbling” post-lobotomy, no one will believe her.
Under Gerace’s perceptive direction, Dr. Cukrowiscz becomes the moral center of “Suddenly Last Summer.” Clark’s understated but powerful performance makes Dr. Cukrowicz a gatekeeper against barbarity. The doctor is no battle-hungry, gung-ho warrior. Instead, Clark creates a monument of decency and conscience — and a formidable stumbling block to Violet’s extraordinarily cruel plans.
As Catherine, Heyl evokes a wild-eyed mania and the thousand-yard-stare of someone who has witnessed something all but unspeakable. Heyl’s performance brings home that Catherine’s trauma has only been intensified by the efforts to make her forget it. She’s been locked up among the truly mad and subjected to electroconvulsive therapy. In Heyl’s frantic, pleading eyes, you can see a woman who’s living terror — as a result of what’s happened to her and for what’s still to come.
As the cruelly formidable Aunt Violet, Nigohosian is pure malevolence dressed up with genteel Southern charm. Her voice drips magnolias and sweet tea, but she is an imperious architect of evil.
Gerace’s supporting cast adds immeasurably to the world of the play. As Catherine’s mother, Ann James flutters with dismay as a quintessentially nice girl raised to be an utterly inconsequential woman. As Catherine’s brother George, Andrew Rathgeber is an often hilariously whiny son of privilege. When he starts mewling about his wants and needs, you roll your eyes at the petulant onslaught of white male tears.
There are layers upon layers to unpack with “Suddenly Last Summer,” from Violet’s incestuous obsession with the Adonis-like (though never-seen) Sebastian to Catherine’s horrified, dawning realization that Violet plans to “cut the truth” out of her brain.
It’s a voracious, disturbing drama that easily could be folded into the plot of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Downstage on Iwanicka’s set, there’s a statue of a naked woman, arms crossed protectively over her chest, head down in the manner of someone afraid of being hit. The stone woman is silent throughout. But her stance speaks volumes in a world where “babbling” women are threats who must be silenced.
Catey Sullivan is a freelance writer.