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 www.SouthCamdenTheatre.org