“Suddenly Last Summer,” the final show of Raven Theatre’s thirty-fifth season, is a 1958 work by Tennessee Williams. It’s only a ninety-minute play, but it’s so steeped in symbolism and allusion that the experience of watching it feels a great deal longer. The script hits a range of problematic things, some understandable within the context of it being a sixty-year-old period piece and others too murky to make an impact one way or another.
A decrepit matron, Mrs. Violet Venable (Mary K. Nigohosian), hires a brain surgeon to perform a lobotomy on a young woman, Catherine, in her financial care. It becomes very clear very quickly that Mrs. Venable’s motives are sinister. Catherine was with Mrs. Venable’s son Sebastian on his last trip abroad and has been telling the story of his violent death, the details of which suggest that Sebastian was gay. Mrs. Venable wants to silence that narrative.
The play culminates in a drawn-out monologue from Catherine telling the entire story of her travels with Sebastian over the previous summer. He used her to attract and manipulate other young men, presumably to have relationships with. And then one day in Spain, inexplicably, a band of small children (whom Catherine describes as “dark”) tail him, kill him and “devour” him. The story smacks of the sort of xenophobic misunderstanding of other cultures emblematic of aristocrats in the 1930s but which, to a contemporary audience, are nigh impossible to believe. The unlikelihood of cannibalistic children in Spain in the thirties makes the reveal deflate before it can reach a conclusion.
I had so many mixed reactions. There are some fine performances, and the play itself has the potential to address real social issues: the history of silencing and dismissing women as “insane” is long, pervasive and still occurring today; the casting in this production opens the door for some interesting reflections on racial dynamics. Yet it lacked the cohesion it needed to make any real point.
The designs are impeccable, particularly the beautiful, immersive sound by Christopher Kriz, and the gorgeous New Orleans garden brought to life by Joanna Iwanicka. However, though it excels in ambiance, it lacks clarity. Many aspects of the plot were lost, to the extent that on the night I attended, the couple sitting in front of me asked each other a series of clarifying questions in whispers throughout the entire length of the show. I couldn’t blame them; my companion and I were flummoxed as well. (Emma Couling)
Raven Theatre, 6157 North Clark, (773)338-2177, raventheatre.com, $15-$46. Through June 17.