For it’s final production, Uprooted Theatre casts caution to the wind and follows its bliss, and the results are a significant event in Milwaukee theater. Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer is not an easy play—for audiences or artists. But Uprooted’s brave, uncompromising and often compelling staging is a poignant sign of what the community will lose when the company folds after this production closes.
Williams’ play is an infrequently staged poetic masterpiece, and a labor of love for director Dennis F. Johnson, as he told me in a recent interview. Originally staged in 1957, then bloatedly adapted into a film by Gore Vidal, it’s original script contains some of Williams most compelling poetry, and tells one of his darkest stories. As John Lahr points out in his recent biography of Williams, it was written after the playwright underwent an intense period of psychotherapy, grappling with his fraught relationship with his mother and sister. Accordingly, the play resembles an interior battle of consciousness (made palpable and in the effulgent, French Quarter setting designed by Marti Gobel) The powerful Violet Venable (Gobel) wants to preserve the order and reputation of her family by silencing her niece Katherine (Sola Thompson), who was a witness to the macabre final days of Venable’s son, Sebastian. Katherine is already confined to an asylum, but Violet wants to silence her completely by persuading a doctor (Marques Causey) to perform a lobotomy.
Supporting characters (Katherine’s parents—played by Derrion Brown and Mara McGhee—and caretakers—Freedom Gobel and Raven Dockery) help Williams clarify the story and the stakes. But the meat of the drama comes in monologs by Violet and Katherine. They both hit the mark.
Gobel doesn’t use makeup to age herself, but she uses mannerisms and tone to transform herself into every bit the Southern matriarch. Thompson, a recent UW-Milwaukee graduate who has worked in Cincinnati of late, captures the terror and confusion in Katherine as she tells her story. Causey deserves credit for balancing the doctor’s role of catalyst and listener while helping the focus stay on the storyteller. Both monologs unspool in a dream-like haze, with Williams’ superb atmospheric descriptions painting a vivid picture. Johnson and his actors shape these scenes with great attention to rhythm and pace, and to shattering dramatic effect. And he wisely lets the language operate without the intrusiveness of music or obtrusive lighting effects. He also doesn’t attempt to tailor the play to reflect the shift to an all-African-American cast. Suddenly, Last Summer here is still a brilliant and tormented man’s reflection on something essential—the inescapable poles—cruelty and beauty—that characterize human experience.