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Review: Suddenly Last Summer 

Southern Rep’s staging of the Tennessee Williams classic at Ashe Power House

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Photo by John Barrois

In a lush New Orleans garden, Mrs. Violet Venable talks to a doctor about having her niece Catherine lobotomized. Recently, Violet's son Sebastian died and she believes Catherine killed him. The doctor eventually meets Catherine, who's living in a mental institution, and injects her with a truth serum so she can tell her story in Southern Rep's production of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer at the Ashe Power House.

  As with much of Williams' work, the show pulls from his own experiences. In 1943, his sister Rose underwent a prefrontal lobotomy, and Suddenly delves into mental health issues. Catherine (Beth Bartley) is escorted by a nun from an asylum to Violet's (Brenda Currin) Uptown New Orleans home. During the summer of Sebastian's death, he traveled with Catherine in Europe, and she was the last family member to see him alive. Violet believes Catherine ruins her son's reputation by "babbling" lies about Sebastian being ripped apart by a group of young boys. Though Violet sometimes uses a wheelchair, Currin gives her intimidating force. There's a great urgency to her mission; her voice cracks with desperation when she talks of her son. She'll stop at nothing to preserve her image of him.

  Directed by Aimee Hayes, the show is full of suspicious agendas and distrust. The doctor (Jake Wynne-Wilson) makes his house call to solicit funds for his practice. He's interested in what he calls Violet's "bribe" money. Though the doctor is morally ambiguous, Wynne-Wilson plays him with charm and wit. Catherine's mother Mrs. Holly (Morrey McElroy) and her brother George (David Williams) also have come to hear Catherine's story. They've tried to convince her to tell Violet a story she wants to hear. There's a large sum of money at stake for this side of the family, as the aunt is keeping their inheritance in probate. In George, Williams infuses boyish energy into the show's frantic pace, and McElroy injects Holly with a sense of much-needed empathy for all involved.

  With references to the French Quarter, Carnival balls and local politics, the play is a distinctly New Orleans affair. Designed by James Tait, the set features a wild garden full of Venus flytraps, fountains and a statue of St. Sebastian.

  In talking about Sebastian's death, Catherine chain-smokes and shakily moves about her aunt's plants. Bartley brings out Catherine's inner turmoil and spills out a horrific account of the traumatizing events. While some actors might play Catherine as crazy, Bartley pulls back enough to keep audiences guessing. It's a powerful and engaging performance, and we can never be sure she's telling the truth. Bartley's nuance helps push the show into complicated and thought-provoking territory.

  This production is riveting and the talented cast have an excellent command of Williams's beautiful language in this dark drama.

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