Sudden Death

We live in an era of easy confession, a time in which stories of abuse and neglect make the rounds of talk shows, support groups, and the evening network news programs. Because we've grown accustomed to the public disclosure of personal trauma, the plays of Tennessee Williams, often structured around the revelation of a heinous family secret, have lost the power to shake us in ways that they rattled audiences 30 or 40 years ago. Yet Williams's work can still knock us out because of his unforgettable characters, including some of the most frighteningly familiar family members in contemporary drama or literature.

Meet Violet Venable, mother of the dead Sebastian Venable, aunt of the tormented Catherine Holly, and monstrous matriarch of Suddenly Last Summer, Williams's 1958 one-act morality play currently on-stage at the Edge/Theatre on Miami Beach. Perhaps the most unflinchingly manipulative of Williams's damaged and damaging Southern ladies, Aunt Vi (Sheila Taylor) is determined to silence what she considers the delusional ravings of her niece Catherine (Iris Delgado), who was with Sebastian when he met an unsavory demise in Europe the previous summer. The young woman insists on recounting the sordid story of how Sebastian engaged in debauchery and exploitation, an account that threatens Violet's chaste version of her son's life and her relationship with him. So Violet summons Dr. Cukrowicz (Kim Ostrenko, in a role written for a man) to the overgrown garden of her New Orleans estate (eerily rendered by scenic designer Nicholas Scott like a white-on-black Matisse drawing) to listen to Catherine's tale, to pronounce Catherine insane, and to schedule her for a lobotomy.

Thus Williams sets the scene for Catherine's hypnotic, image-laden memory monologue about Sebastian's death, written as an autobiographical confession of the playwright's own struggle to balance creativity with what he considered a self-destructive and devouring promiscuity. Williams also weaves some personal history into Catherine's insistence that she is sane, even as her aunt threatens her with brain surgery. Following a breakdown, Williams's sister Rose underwent a lobotomy at the behest of their mother Edwina; the playwright never forgave himself for not protecting his sister, nor did he ever shake the feeling that he narrowly escaped the same fate. Suddenly Last Summer gives voice to that double anguish.

Sometimes cartoonish, sometimes wooden, the Edge/Theatre's production, directed by Peter Confalone, manages nonetheless to be engaging, largely as a result of Delgado's performance. A compelling actress who commands attention every moment she's on-stage, Delgado brings both spunk and vulnerability to the wounded Catherine. As directed by Confalone, however, Delgado, during the crucial final monologue, unravels into the stereotype of a crazy woman, hugging herself, rocking back and forth, and pulling at her skin. Rather than conveying the savagery Catherine and Sebastian confronted, Delgado conveys only hysteria; rather than listening for the poetry in Williams's language, I found myself anticipating the gory details.

As for Sheila Taylor's performance as the predatory Violet -- well, no doubt many of you recall the Norma Desmond character in the film Sunset Boulevard. Taylor proves she can camp it up with the craziest of old birds in her depiction of this particular vulture, a woman who rules the roost by gripping the purse strings, a woman so deeply self-deluding that she claims, "I did not have a stroke. I had a slight aneurysm." Unfortunately Taylor's campiness proves incompatible with Delgado's ardent characterization. And because Taylor hits few other notes, she turns Violet into a parody, diminishing the credibility of her own performance.

As Cukrowicz, Kim Ostrenko depicts an objective and restrained doctor, providing a glimmer of sanity in a carnival of dysfunction. Yet in relying on objectivity and restraint, Ostrenko allows her character to do little more than react to the proceedings, and a fully developed portrait never emerges. To carry on with the Sunset Boulevard motif, Lionel Goldbart, as the secretary-cum-butler Foxhill, provides Violet with the perfect Max to her Norma. Ann Long (Mrs. Holly) and David Christopher (George Holly) seem to have wandered into Tennessee Williams territory from a production of Lil' Abner, but in keeping with the evening's odd blend of camp and solemnity, their performances somehow fit.

The counterpoint between serious drama and lampoon that lends this particular Suddenly Last Summer its quirkiness also undermines it, however, mostly because director Confalone doesn't seem to be in control of the production's tone. Ultimately caricature overrides complexity, and the drama unfolds as a series of gossipy tidbits instead of an expose of corrupt values, as Williams intended.

Artistic director Jim Tommaney began presenting lectures, performance art, and plays at the Edge last April, promising South Beach crowds an alternative to the culture of clubs and cafes. The intimate theater can be found at the top of the Espanola Way Art Center. You could do worse on a weekend evening than strolling up the art center's several flights of stairs, past walls lined with artwork, to catch this production. And for Williams addicts, his In the Bar of the Tokyo Hotel opens at the Edge on November 3.

Stage Notes
Acclaimed playwright Marsha Norman visits South Florida this weekend as the keynote speaker and guest of honor at the Florida Association of Theater Education's (FATE) annual conference (October 12-14). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for 'Night Mother and a Tony Award for The Secret Garden, Norman will not only sign books and speak at a conference luncheon on Friday, October 13, she'll also conduct a playwriting workshop afterward. The conference takes place at the DoubleTree Hotel on Fort Lauderdale beach. Open to non-FATE theater educators and professionals as well as association members, it features an array of workshops and seminars, from theater education to design to film and television production. Call Marilyn Lavadio at the Mimic Theatre Company (962-8932) for reservations and details.

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