Both are lyrical plays, both are written by Tennessee Williams, although one is a rarely-produced, short fever dream and the other a study in more than just dysfunctional families; it’s a morality play in its own right. And both are brilliantly produced and staged and gripping from start to finish. This is theatre with a big T.
Go see ‘Suddenly, Last Summer.’ It’s a tightly packed play that will reward you with gorgeous words and some uncomfortable truths—that hold true today. And it only takes 100 minutes to shake you to your core.
‘Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen’ is one of the saddest pieces I have ever seen. It’s a two-person elegy for love gone wrong and lives shipwrecked by drugs and alcohol, trying to hold onto some hope of something that will at least bring contentment, maybe a smidgeon of peace. As Williams sees it, actually dreaming of something more isn’t possible.
Miss Kitty is the Woman and Erik Harrison is the Man; after an absence of a few nights and days, he returns home to the flop where they live and upon waking tries to enlist her sympathy for his plight. When she accuses him of leaving her without any means—she ran out of food and was surviving on water—he looks blankly at her and then asks her to “talk to me like the rain and let me listen.” She obliges, spinning a story of going to the other side of the country and living in a small hotel while speaking to no one and keeping to herself. Only books shall be her companions. Miss Kitty gives a tour-de-force 15-minute monologue as she paints in Williams’ words what her life will be like. They may be his words, but the light shining from inside as she dream-paints a future is hers.
‘Suddenly, Last Summer’ will probably be known to many audiences through the movie with Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift as the two antagonists and the doctor. This version brings the play firmly back into the theatre and is even more engrossing as so much is imagined through the words.
It’s set in the late 1930s and the story opens with Violet Venable (Cam Magee) discussing a donation with Dr. Cukrowicz, aka Dr. Sugar, (Matthew Sparacino) to his public institute for treating mental illness, particularly if he will take her niece, Catherine Holly (Sara Barker) in as a patient and do whatever he needs to do to relieve the poor young woman of the memory of a traumatic experience; the new procedure—the lobotomy—would be just perfect and it’s just fine with Aunt Violet if Cathy ends up as a docile, smiling cipher. If she dies, that would be okay as well.
Violet is determined to exact revenge on Cathy for her son Sebastian’s death the previous summer when something so horrible happened that Cathy had a mental breakdown. Sebastian had been traveling in Spain with Cathy; this was the first time in decades that he hadn’t spent the summer traveling with his mother. Violet blames Cathy for Sebastian’s death and believes she is covering up murdering him, but the truth will be much more horrible.
Cathy also can’t count on her immediate family—her mother and brother—for any help. They are dependent on Aunt Violet for their livelihood, including her brother George being able to go to university and stay in his fraternity.
Cathy is a young woman in a time when short shrift was given to women in general, who has been in a mental hospital (and received insulin shock and electric shock therapies among others—it was a state-of-the-art facility), and who lacks social and monetary value in the family; the chances of a doctor believing her, when a sizeable donation is at stake is small. She will, however, tell the truth. She might end up with her brain short-circuited, but she will finally face the entire truth. And it’s not only Sebastian’s betrayal that summer before, but there’s also an equally cutting betrayal closer to home.
Given the Southern gothic elements, the timing of the play is a strength. This is not a play that would do well with an intermission—the tension builds as Cathy, under Dr. Sugar’s guidance, starts letting the entire story spill, and it builds until everyone’s world comes crashing down. Physically, Barker echoes the tension building–as her memories start cascading, so does the pressure of her words and her accent becomes thicker and more exaggerated, even as her movement around the set becomes more prowling.
Other characters include Megan Morgan as Mrs. Holly, Cathy’s mother; Erik Harrison as her brother, George; and Christine Hirrel as Sister Felicity, the nurse who accompanied her from St. Mary’s asylum. Toward the end, her brother has a surprisingly moral realization, and Harrison, in this brief moment, completely portrays a young, privileged man seeing an injustice and speaking up, understanding what is really being asked. It’s a nice moment.
Finally, Miss Kitty plays Miss Foxhill, Violet’s nurse/companion/housekeeper/general factotum/guard dog. The role as presented here had a lot of anger and attitude and at times was a bit jarring in how theatrical it was.
As Mrs. Holly, Morgan fully plays a woman who has to ingratiate herself to keep living the life she’s accustomed to, but who is just a touch too common to completely pull it off. There is also a moment at the end when her inner steel nakedly shows up—it’s a nice counterpoint to George’s moment.
Cam Magee brings the imperiousness and imperturbability that being cushioned by money has given Violet brilliantly into play; underneath the flirtatiousness with the doctor and genuine pain at losing her son, she’s a nasty piece of work. She is well-matched by Barker as Catherine; almost too well-matched. There wasn’t much chance in the production to really glimpse Catherine’s innate fragility; she’s from a slightly lower class, has been used and abused by people of Sebastian and Violet’s class; and for her to face a woman such as Violet who can crush her because of money and connections is a huge deal. There were a few moments when Catherine shied away from the memories, but she seemed to almost relish taking on Violet.
It is amazing that this play made it past the censors in the 1930s; although nothing is said too overtly, the play deals with homosexuality and the rabid, public anti-homosexuality bent of the times; with sexual assault; with class distinctions, and not in a madcap way—they are made brutally clear; and with parasitic, unhealthy family relationships. It’s a lot to pack into a bit over an hour and a half.
The set is used for both the pre-show and “Suddenly, Last Summer.” In the pre-show, the iron pieces that later serve as trellises and window frames serve as the walls/windows of a little flop somewhere in New York City; between the smallness of the space, the makeshift furniture and the worn, dirty mattress and sheets, you can almost smell the humidity, body odor, cheap food, booze and hopelessness. The design becomes much more elegant for Suddenly, although it’s really William’s words that paint such a vivid picture of the settings—the one in the greenhouse Sebastian loved and the one in Spain where he died. The very flexible scenic design is by David Ghatan.
The costumes certainly capture both periods. Anna Marquardt provided lovely period costumes that revealed each character’s socio-economic background and place in society without saying a word. Sounder designer Clay Teunis did a lovely job of bringing in the sounds of the tropical greenhouse, slowly turning them to a more sinister series of sounds from Spain as the story progressed. Christopher Henley directed with a deft, light touch, for the most part, allowing the escalating horror of the story to ratchet up the tension.
Both plays are intriguing in very different ways. The pre-show, “Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen,” is a heartbreaking little slice of life without any background—it is very much in the present. ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’ is a complex story of family and the forbidden, homophobia, misogyny, class privilege, depravity and murder.
Go see “Suddenly, Last Summer.” It’s a tightly packed play that will reward you with gorgeous words and some uncomfortable truths—that hold true today. And it only takes 100 minutes to shake you to your core.
Running Time: The pre-show, “Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen,” is approximately 25 minutes. “Suddenly, Last Summer” is 100 minutes with no intermission.
Advisories: Adult language and themes for both plays, cigarette smoking, drug use.
“Suddenly, Last Summer,” and the pres-show, “Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen” runs in rep with “Ava and the Engine” through April 5, 2020, at Avant Bard Theatre, Gunston Hall Arts Center, Arlington, VA. For more information, click here.