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A Fine Excess 

Horrid exaggeration -- and unexpected pleasure -- at the Berkeley Rep

Wednesday, Feb 26 2003
Suddenly Last Summer is one of Tennessee Williams' best underperformed plays, a 100-minute, near-perfect Southern Gothic that combines all the lurid ingredients of his masterpieces as well as his flops, including rampant homosexual desire, a steamy jungle setting, nuns, and a dragon-lady mother in denial. Williams fully expected it to fail when it premiered in 1958. It surprised everyone -- critics included -- by winning over audiences, the critics themselves, and Tennessee's mom, who didn't seem to notice that the dragon lady was modeled after her.

The lady is Mrs. Venable, a wealthy old matron living in the garden district of New Orleans. She sits in a wheelchair, attended by servants, and receives guests on her overgrown patio, which Williams describes in his stage directions as "more like a tropical jungle, or forest, in the prehistoric age of giant fern-forests when living creatures had flippers turning to limbs and scales to skin." When the play opens, Mrs. Venable is quizzing a young doctor about an experimental method of his that she might want to underwrite: frontal lobotomy. It seems her niece, Catharine Holly, has been telling a horrendous tale about the death of Mrs. Venable's son, Sebastian. The old woman would like it very much if Dr. Sugar would find Catharine crazy enough for his new procedure, in order to "cut that horrible story out of her brain."

Williams' own mother was not so malevolent or rich, but she did subject her disturbed daughter, Rose, to a frontal lobotomy that haunted Williams for the rest of his life. (He felt guilty for not stopping it.) Williams based Sebastian Venable on himself, but that was also embellished: The playwright was never quite as idle and wilting as the gay poet in the play, who wrote exactly one poem per year and stayed close to his mother until the age of 40. Suddenly Last Summer is a kind of horrid exaggeration -- but then, poetry (as Keats insisted) should "surprise by a fine excess," and everything about the script and Les Waters' current revival of it at Berkeley Rep is lyrically, delicately excessive.

The centerpiece is Michelle Duffy's performance as Catharine, the uncontrollable niece. Catharine is a healthy, spirited debutante who's been committed by Mrs. Venable to a Catholic mental hospital. She comes onstage pursued by a nun. Mrs. Venable wants Dr. Sugar to inject her with truth serum to see if she sticks to the horrible story about Sebastian's death; the older woman suspects Catharine of killing him and then spreading lies about his sex life. Catharine's mother and brother also turn up: They're a pair of smiling, middle-class social climbers who need the money Sebastian has left them in his will. Mrs. Venable won't release it if Catharine keeps telling her tale. "Your mother's dependin' on me," says Mrs. Venable to Catharine, with everyone assembled in the garden. "All of you are, financially." The dragon lady sips her daiquiri, and the whole entourage, Dr. Sugar included, falls silent.

So Catharine finds herself in a perfect bind, and Duffy plays her with just the right amount of sultriness and wild abandon. Her character mouths off to her mother, insults her brother, hurts the nun, and never forgets to be attractive. There is a hint in Duffy's performance of trying too hard to be sexy, which turns out to work well, because Catharine wouldn't be so wild if boys just fell in her lap. What she cares about is the truth, and when she gets to tell it, in her final speech, Duffy gives herself over to a fine, excessive emotion that clinches the play.

Randy Danson is also strong as Mrs. Venable, especially in the speeches intended to paint her son's character. Danson wasn't in full control of her lines when I saw her -- after opening night -- but her manner and voice were perfect; it was a surprise to look in the program and see that she wasn't nearly as old as Mrs. Venable. Anne Darragh is excellent as Catharine's mother, a cringing, doting woman in glasses and a flowered dress. Joey Collins strains a bit with Dr. Sugar's Southern accent, but otherwise he gives a credible performance and lands the play's devastating last line flawlessly.

The only disappointment is Annie Smart's antiseptic set, which renders that prehistoric Venable garden in a three-sided arrangement of windows painted with huge leaves in a light, translucent green. It's practical but not very lush. Chris Parry's lighting plays interesting tricks with the painted leaves -- turning them fuchsia whenever the women describe Sebastian -- but overall the set is a nouvelle cuisine version of New Orleans that the actors, I'm happy to say, don't share.


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