New Orleans grande dame Violet Venable is interviewing Dr. Cukrowicz. A young researcher, he is setting up a lobotomy clinic and needs money, money that she’s willing to supply if he’ll agree to lobotomize her niece, Catharine. Catharine was on vacation in Europe with Violet’s son, Sebastian, when he died (yes, he had the same name as the saint usually shown in paintings as half naked and pierced by multiple arrows), and she has been “babbling” about his death in ways Violet finds unendurable. “You’ve got to cut that hideous story out of her brain,” she insists. Sebastian was a poet, whose one poem a year was always written after his vacation with his mother, until a stroke rendered her unable to travel to Cabeza de Logo and Catharine became his companion. He was chaste, and once wanted to be a monk: “All poets look for God,” Violet says. The second act is pretty much swallowed up by Catharine’s “babbling,” and her narrative is ugly, bloody and revelatory. It shows Sebastian less as a candidate for sainthood than as a fastidious, forty-year-old predator who used both his mother and Catharine as bait for young men — upper-class men in Violet’s case, rougher trade with Catharine.
Suddenly, Last Summer, a mixture of autobiography, Gothic fantasy and pure nightmare currently being produced by Spotlight Theatre, could only emerge from a brain as fevered as that of Tennessee Williams. An extended one-act (though here presented in two) written in 1958, this isn’t the best of Williams’s works — it feels fragmentary and the ending truncated. But it does contain bursts of stunning beauty and long stretches of wonderful poetry, as well as all of Williams’s customary obsessions: art, mutilation, greed and inheritance, homosexuality. Almost every element carries multiple meanings — metaphorical, mystical, sexual — even though some of the symbolism seems overwrought or obvious. Violet, that dangerous and destructive matriarch, had her counterpart in all kinds of fictional mothers of the time, including the one in Arthur Kopit’s Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. Kopit’s murderous mamma loved Venus flytraps; Violet has one in the living room. At other times, the metaphors resonate. According to Violet, Dr. Cukrowicz’s Polish last name means “sugar.” Like Sebastian, he dresses in an impeccable white suit. The subtext is insistent, and it’s up to us to interpret it.
Violet also delivers an extraordinary monologue about being on the Galapagos Islands with Sebastian and watching newborn baby turtles scuttle for the sea while terrible black birds swooped down from the sky to tear away the turtles’ flesh. Like the flytrap, the birds represent Violet, and the anecdote also foreshadows the story Catharine will later tell.
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There are undertones of racism and classism, too. Sebastian refers to Spain’s beggars as “a social disease in this country.” His attackers — the same beggars — are described as “a flock of featherless little black sparrows” with “fierce little empty black mouths.” Williams’s worldview is lurid, but so was the America he knew. His own mother had his disturbed sister Rose lobotomized — an almost insanely crude and violent practice of the 1940s and ’50s — and he never stopped grieving for her. And in those days, homosexuality was a dark, dangerous secret. After years of bitter repression, Williams flaunted his. Sebastian represents both martyrdom and a depraved soul punished for unspeakable sins.
Sometimes the best evenings are provided by smaller theaters that make up for their lack of resources by choosing daring and fascinating scripts and casting them brilliantly. Director Bernie Cardell found three actors who all possess a rare capability: They convey not only surface meaning, but also depth and mystery. In many productions, Dr. Cukrowicz is just a sounding board for Violet and Catharine; we never know if he’s a manipulator or a healer, whether he’ll betray Catharine or save her. James O’Hagan Murphy’s performance doesn’t answer these questions, but he makes the ambiguity musical and rich.
Maggie Stacy brings conviction and groundedness to Catharine, a role that in others’ hands is often Ophelia-like or absurdly, hysterically over the top. Some Violets are fragile as well as vindictive; not Emma Messenger’s. Her Violet is in pain — but fragile? Not for a moment do we forget this woman’s ferocious power or believe that Catharine will escape it.
Suddenly, Last Summer, presented by Spotlight Theatre Company through September 24 at the John Hand Theatre, 7653 East First Place, 720-530-4596.