Friday, February 12, 2016

Review: Suddenly, Last Summer

South Camden Theatre Company celebrates Tennessee Williams' 100th birthday with a knockout production of Suddenly, Last Summer. Review by Wendy Rosenfield

Review: Suddenly, Last Summer



By Wendy Rosenfield

For the Inquirer

In honor of Tennessee Williams’ centennial birthday, South Camden Theatre Company’s season celebrates all things Williams and Williams-related, kicking off the festivities with his exercise in self-flagellation, Suddenly, Last Summer. The play, later fleshed out--so to speak--by Williams and Gore Vidal into a 1959 film, starring Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, really consists of two monologues, supported at key moments by additional players. 

But those monologues sure give a gal a chance to show off, and in this production, directed at a rolling boil by Connie Norwood, in Robert Bingaman’s lush garden set, the gals--steel magnolia Violet Venable (Lee Kiszonas) and her fiery, fragile niece Catherine (Emily Letts)--tear each other apart with a well-matched carnivorous fury. Appropriate, considering the drama’s gothic climax. Of course, Violet’s beloved adult son Sebastian didn’t survive his summer abroad with Catherine, and so we’re left with two wildly diverging accounts of his late, “poetic,” character, culminating in Catherine’s memory of Sebastian’s final day, a day so horrible Violet aims to have it ripped from her niece’s brain via lobotomy.

Williams gnashes his teeth all the way through this script, ridden with guilt over his homosexuality and his inability to prevent his sister Rose’s own lobotomy--performed at their mother’s behest, after Rose accused their father of rape. Nonetheless, he leaves room for some blackly humorous moments, all of which Norwood and her superb cast weave seamlessly into the play’s histrionics. Kiszonas in particular, tall and strong enough to make her cane and wheelchair seem like affectations, balances her character’s selfishness, charm, and the laser-focus of her machinations with an underlying sadness. That she manages to stir up some empathy for Violet is no small accomplishment.

Though the women square off on equal ground, this is Letts’ tour de force. She leads Violet toward her own undoing like one of Sebastian’s venus flytraps, framing each word beneath a gentle n’awlins lilt, languid in a sleveless amethyst blouse and form-fitting black skirt. With tangled hair and shaky hands, one minute she’s vulnerable, the next, defiant, turning to faded Violet and singeing her with a fire fueled by youth, beauty in full flower, and truth. It’s an edge-of-the-seat ride, and one of the most exciting performances I’ve seen this season. That it’s all happening in this outpost of a theater near Camden’s waterfront is another of the season’s small miracles, and a fine testament to the vitality of Williams’ legacy.

Suddenly, Last Summer

Playing at: South Camden Theatre Company, 400 Jasper St., Camden, NJ. Through Sun., Nov. 6. Tickets: $15. Information: 866-811-4111 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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