Capturing the conscience of Tennessee Williams

Shaking the Tree's revival of 'Suddenly, Last Summer' offers a glimpse inside an outsider's mind


Rocked in the cradle by the demons of his Southern birth, Tennessee Williams was a man of his age and place. Shouldering that burden with Truman Capote and others of his era, he adopted a visceral masculinity polished with an effete sophistication. In a time when being openly homosexual was likely to have you expelled from society physically, psychologically and emotionally, Williams and his generation set a standard of untouchable worldliness, creating a gentility from which they could write, dance or paint beyond the circumvention of accepted gender identity. He was like an Orpheus, torn apart not by the Bacchanal, but rather by the inner sadness of his alienated standing.

Suddenly, a story gets told. Photo: Gary Norman

Suddenly, a story gets told. Photo: Gary Norman

While much and little has changed for gay civil rights, at the center of Williams’ work we experience the lost man. He writes in contrasts, from the humid, chthonic overgrowth of a personal garden to the bone-dry burning seaside. As his characters stand outside of temporary destinations, their mental and emotional lives pay a heavy cost for stoicism. If his characters were more honest, more open, more at liberty, we would have no play.

Shaking the Tree Theatre & Studio, which has just opened a revival of Williams’ 1958 one-act drama Suddenly, Last Summer, is an intimate playhouse, and its size and careful use of space are good matches for the savvy of the company’s audience. The actors, and director/set designer Samantha Van Der Merwe, often break the fourth wall: a character might appear off the side curtain nearing a hallway, but the direction draws you in as a participant experiencing a play. A respectful easiness in performance welcomes dabblers, lovers, and masters of the spoken word.

The set for Suddenly, Last Summer matches the contrasts within Williams’ play: an ornate rattan floral sitting room against a starch-white handmade paper forest of flowers and vines. Lights skip seamlessly off of the dead poet Sebastian’s jungle in greens and purples that match his mother’s antiquated lace dress. The sound of birds pitch against silent pauses and accentuate the dense overgrowth.

Suddenly, Last Summer is a series of confessional monologues anchored between aggressive interruptions. The members of a disingenuous Louisiana upper middle class family are set to save their reputations, bank accounts, futures, sanity, and egos after the unexpected death of the center of their universe, Sebastian Venable, a reclusive dandy who spends his life planning for vacations abroad, where he acquires and sometimes pays for one-time-a-year love. It is in his secret life and charm that his mother and later his cousin, Catherine, become entangled in his web of orchestrated hedonism.

Shaking The Tree captures the static, polarizing history and figures in Suddenly, Last Summer and presents the psychic front lines of knowing, but not saying, the truth. The opening minutes are uncomfortable and forced, capturing the foundation of presumed mores. As the play continues and more of the cast fills the stage, we become engrossed in solving the riddles we wish to be solved in real time.

Beth Thompson, as cousin Catherine Holly, mirrors the fortitude and despair of a prisoner of Bedlam. She matches, one on one, Jacklyn Maddux as Violet Venable, Sebastian’s mother. They are the two characters who display a complexity of personality, dueling off the one-sided attrition of the lesser sycophants. Steve Vanderzee is the perfect repressed and over-pressed young Southern man,  torn between apron strings and self delusion.

Van Der Merwe has done an exceptional job of assembling theatrical elements, using lighting, sound, and image to explore the inner stories and lives into which we get a glimpse. Each of us has been an outsider at one point in our lives. The great axis upon which good artistic work rests is finding the universal thread in the  current dilemma. Shaking The Tree gives Williams a new approach to see that invisible line.


Suddenly, Last Summer continues through May 2 at Shaking the Tree. Ticket and schedule information are here.


Christa McIntyre is a Pacific Northwest freelance journalist, a lover, a fighter, mother, chef of sandwiches and occasional back seat canoe paddler.


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