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ETC's SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER Serves Up Queerness, Cannibalism, & Just The Right Amount Of Camp

"Tell us what happened last summer on Cabeza de Lobo!"


I took in the closing performance of ETC's production of Suddenly Last Summer, a short one-act gem from playwright Tennessee Williams. Directed by Tyler Hebert, this play, like a lot of Williams' work, is semi-autobiographical with characters inspired by or based on members of his inner circle and situations patterned after his own adventures, and then infused with a heightened drama and camp sensibility that transforms it into an experience that puts the most grotesque of human behavior on full public display. In this play, members of a rich New Orleans family gather to settle the matter of the death last summer of the spoiled heir, Sebastian, a coddled man-child with aspirations of being a great poet.


What I love about Williams, that is perfectly captured in this script in particular, is the way that it lends itself so easily to camp. Yes, you can play it straight and give a more serious rendition of the material, but it really shines when the actors are encouraged to really push the boundaries. The play is written in a sort of "soap opera speak" where characters are addressed by their full names and certain words or phrases are repeated for effect:


[paraphrased]

"Cathy, tell us what happened last summer in Cabeza de Lobo!"

"I'm trying to tell you what happened in Cabeza de Lobo. It's all so terrible!"

"Tell the truth, Cathy! Tell us about Cabeza de Lobo!"


This repetition, this extravagence of language, is just one aspect of Williams' writing that lends itself so easily to camp, and the company tread their positions on either side of that line in various ways, creating an interesting tapestry of excess and restraint.


Nicole Quam's Mrs. Venable, Sebastian's mother, is quietly malicious as she slyly threatens and blackmails Robert Cooper's Dr. "Sugar" Curkowicz." She points out the Venus flytrap on their initial tour of Sebastian's garden, letting us know from the outset that this meeting with Cathy is less a chance to expose the truth and more of a trap from an old woman who holds the power of the purse over the rest of her family.



Veronica Lee Folkedahl's Catherine is the most heightened performance of the cast, the most unhinged, with rare quiet moments interspersed with her desperation and the lurid tale she tells of Sebastian's demise. This feels strangely appropriate given that Cathy is the only character who is telling the truth in a tangle of vipers who use manners and decorum to disguise and justify their schemes. And the stakes for her are all too real: Dr. Sugar is not only there to interview her, but Mrs. Venable is pushing him to lobotimize Cathy in order to shut her up for good, an act that she is more than willing to pay for with a sizable donation to his research.


Ben Schille and Tyler Folkedahl play Mr. Holly and George, Cathy's father and brother respectively. Schille's Mr. Holly is as much smooth southern charm as Folkedahl's George is seething anger and resentment, and neither one can seem to pacify Cathy's agitation, unable to gain her submission with either the carrot or the stick. Both actors create a delightfully cartoonish show for Mrs. Venable with their true nature and ambition slipping out during private asides to Cathy to remember the money! We need the money! You have to think about the money!


The cast is rounded out by Amy Lyste's Sister Felicity and Anna Gust's Miss Foxhill, and while Tennessee Williams didn't give a lot of development to "the help," Lyste does a fine job as Cathy's sour caretaker from the asylum, and Gust plays the subservient, put-upon assistant to Mrs. Venable with appropriate deference and sighing submission.


But the show, and these moments in the garden belong to Cathy. Having been injected with an unnamed substance by Dr. Sugar that is meant to ensure that she tells nothing but the truth, Cathy relays the story of Sebastian's last summer, and his horrific death at Cabeza de Lobo.



There is a long-standing trope in literature and textual analysis that is sometimes referred to as "Bury Your Gays." It refers to the idea that queer characters (or characters who are coded as queer, as Sebastian is never explicitly referred to as gay) are somehow more expendable than straight characters, and are more likely to be killed to advance the plot, or may even be killed as a metaphorical punishment because they are queer.


This trope is in full force in Suddenly Last Summer as Cathy relates the story of their time in Cabeza de Lobo, how Simon forced her to wear a revealing white swimsuit to lure men into his orbit (the way his mother used to lure in strangers with her gregarious personality when they traveled together). She says, "I was procuring for him!" and claims that Mrs. Venable did the same thing, whether she was conscious of it or not. There is even the suggestion that Sebastian's preferences might have included those below the age of consent; as she tells the tale of the day of his death, she describes the white heat of the day, how a group of naked homeless children gathered on the other side of a barbed wire fence where Sebastian and Cathy were having lunch, playing improvised percussion instruments in a way that evokes the history of colonizers describing jungle native peoples as mysterious and dangerous savages. Cathy tries to convince him to go back into the restaurant, or head down the hill to the docks to catch a taxi back to the hotel, but Sebastian refuses, instead heading up the hill in the blazing heat, when the mob from the beach break through the fence-line and pursue him.


But it's not enough for the mob to simply kill Sebastian. No, he is devoured. Just as his life and his attentions have been devoured by his "perverse" desires, his body is devoured by those who were the objects of his desire. This is the truth that Cathy keeps repeating to anyone who will listen, and this is the truth that Mrs. Venable wants silenced, permanently.



And if Cathy seems hysterical in trying to tell this truth, it's because she knows that she too is being devoured. She is also considered "sexually deviant" by polite New Orleans society because a married man took advantage of her after a debutante ball. Rather than just sit quietly with this secret, she chose to find that man and she attacked him publicly, breaking every rule of decorum in the name of speaking the truth. She was blacklisted, dropped from all the guest lists from all the best parties, and branded as a deviant, as a troublemaker. Just another example of a woman bearing the punishment for a man's bad behavior.


And now Cathy is being devoured by her aunt, Mrs. Venable, for speaking the truth about her beloved son, about what happened last summer in Cabeza de Lobo. Cabeza de Lobo translates to wolf's head: Mrs. Venable views Cathy as a threat, as a predator that needs to be neutralized, and she's brought in Dr. Sugar to give Cathy a lobotomy to silence the story for ever. "Cut this hideous story from her brain!" she shrieks, revealing the true treachery in her motives. She doesn't care for Cathy to find peace, only for her to be stopped from disturbing the memory of her son's tragic death.


Cooper brings a sweetness to the role of Dr. Curkowicz that is fitting for a doctor referred to throughout as Sugar, but his softness and compassion are not enough. Although the play ends with Dr. Sugar saying that they have to at least entertain the notion that Cathy might be telling the truth, those of us who live in this world as "deviant" people know better: no one is coming to save poor Cathy, who could never play along with the rules of polite society, just as no one was going to save Sebastian from his own excesses. No matter how sweet he might be, research is expensive and if he won't perform the procedure, Mrs. Venable has the resources to find another doctor who will.



And that's the real threat in this story: the schemes and machinations of a society that will sacrifice truth for propriety. One might assume that Cathy is the wolf who's head is going to be drilled to satisfy Mrs. Venable's desire for revenge, that Sebastian is the monster of the piece for his ghoulish desires (at one point Cathy describes Sebastian as treating people like items you would order off a menu). But who is really the villain of the piece?


In a 2008 essay on CinemaQueer, Michael D. Klemm argues against the idea that this is Williams' portrayal of a self-loathing homosexual, or that the play justifies either Sebastian's or Catherine's fate; rather, the real monster of the piece is Violet Venable, and the play reveals in great detail how she uses her money and influence to control those around her, meting out reward and punishment as she sees fit. Sebastian is not sympathetic by any means, but it's possible to read him and his downfall not as a condemnation of his queerness but rather as the result of him becoming too much like his mother: too exploitative, too manipulative, without having the social connections and wealth of his mother to fully back it up.



Although I would love to see a production of this show that really pushes the camp to its limits (and I know an aging drag queen who would be a shoe-in for the spiteful Mrs. Venable if anyone is casting!), I thought the ETC production did a fantastic job of balancing the more extreme bursts of emotion with quieter, subtler moments that gave it a heightened but not over-the-top feel.


In terms of the staging, they did a great job of suggesting the Venable home's lush gardens, though I'm not sure why we all, as the audience, needed to be a direct part of it. Once again, ETC made the perplexing (and personally infuriating) decision to seat the audience on the stage with the actors. If they want the black box theatre experience, there is a black box in the basement of the Empire! But time after time, they make the decision to ignore the comfortable, spacious auditorium and plunk the audience into uncomfortable stacking chairs on the stage. This gimmick was used to great effect for the production of The Flick, a show about workers in a movie theater, but it apparently ignited something in someone and now it seems like there is at least one show a season that is awkwardly staged to have the audience up on stage with the cast. I hate it.



That gripe aside, the rest of the technical aspects were expertly done, with gorgeous costumes evoking the elegant luxury of a rich southern family in the 1930s. The space being constrained as it was by the presence of the audience, it did present a challenge in terms of the staging: the abbreviated porch that could only fit so many actors at a time, the lack of any real separation between the porch and the garden (although separate moments are meant to be happening in each), etc. but overall the production succeeded in transporting me to this den of smartly dressed vipers.


Remember who the real monsters are...


As we continue to face a conservative backlash against the progress of LGBTQ+ people, a show like this is as timely as ever. Those who discriminate and legislate against queer and trans folks under the guise of "protecting families" are just as vicious and dangerous as they have ever been, and their true motives will always be unmasked like the shrieking Mrs. Venable in the final scene demanding the doctor "cut that hideous story from her mind!" But queer people can't be dealt with so easily, and the truth will always have its day.

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