Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 3
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
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Music/Theater

MOTHER IN MOURNING: Violet Venable (Carolyn Vasko), New Orleans grande dame, fights fiercely to defend her version of her son’s life and violent death, in “Suddenly, Last Summer,” the longer of two one-act plays that make up Tennessee Williams’ “Garden District,” playing through Saturday, December 11 at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus.

“Garden District” Features Two One-Acts by Tennessee Williams, Flawed but Fascinating Dramas, Revealing Hidden Human Passions

—Donald Gilpin

Two grande dames preside over the two one-acts comprising Tennessee Williams’ passionate, intensely psychological Garden District, first seen Off-Broadway in 1958. These two classic Williams characters, modeled in part on the playwright’s mother, are narcissistic, domineering, ferociously loving, and fiercely controlling matriarchs. Long-since-faded southern belles, women of wealth and power, they struggle frantically to preserve their veneer of purity, gentility, beauty, and civility amidst the dark passions and human strivings of daily life. They wage desperate battle to sustain their power through the ravages of time and circumstance.

Something Unspoken, the 30 minute opener, and Suddenly, Last Summer, the 90-minute main attraction, contain many elements — settings, characters, situations — familiar to aficionados of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

The eponymous gardens here may be beautiful, refined, and elegant, in the style of the surrounding architecture and in reflection of their genteel, aristocratic owners, but, especially in the longer play, those gardens are also a primal jungle, where animal passions and behaviors prevail. The tragic mixture of the most beautiful and the most sordid facets of human nature, seen in Blanche Dubois from Streetcar and throughout Williams’ work and life, emerge powerfully in these two plays.

The Theatre Intime company, undergraduates directed by Princeton University sophomore Daniel Rattner, does a worthy job of accomplishing the requisite stretches in age and understanding to bring these characters to life. There is certainly an initial credibility gap for twenty-year-olds attempting to portray the elderly, imperious southern matriarchs who control the proceedings here, but the Intime performers are up to the task — committed, capable, and intelligently rehearsed.

Suddenly, Last Summer, made into a 1959 movie starring Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, is the story of the wealthy and eccentric Violet Venable (Carolyn Vasko) and her attempts to preserve her chaste image of her son, who suffered a violent death the previous summer. Set on Mrs. Venable’s porch, overlooking the symbolic, jungle-like gardens (colorful and attractive but disappointingly underemphasized in this production designed by Christina Campodonico and Aryeh Stein-Azen, with lighting by Sean Drohan), the play pits Mrs. Venable against her niece, Catharine Holly (Savannah Hankinson), who has been spending the past months in an insane asylum after witnessing the shocking demise of Mrs. Venable’s son Sebastian, a gay poet with insatiable sexual appetites.

Tennessee Williams’ “Garden District (“Something Unspoken” and “Suddenly, Last Summer”) runs for one more weekend, Thursday through Saturday, December 9-11, at 8 p.m., with an additional performance at 2 p.m. on Saturday at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.princeton.edu/utickets for information.

During the course of the play Mrs. Venable attempts to persuade Dr. Curowicz (Alex Chase-Levenson), a brain surgeon, to obliterate, through a lobotomy, Catharine’s memory of the sordid circumstances surrounding Sebastian’s death. The play presents a ghoulish, Gothic aura, as Catharine’s story, delivered under the influence of the doctor’s sodium pentothal truth serum, dominates the final third of the drama.

Ms. Vasko’s possessively maternal Violet Venable, still mourning the death of her son, is ruthless and controlling. Though physically impaired, this Mrs. Venable is a formidable combatant, obviously used to employing her money and power to get what she wants, even if that means denial of the truth and destruction of others’ lives.

Ms. Hankinson creates a sympathetic Catharine, far less dynamic than her aunt, but demonstrating her own subdued passions. She delivers her long, emotionally and intellectually challenging final monologue with clarity and focus. Mr. Chase-Levenson’s urbane doctor provides a suitable vehicle for establishing the central battle between the two women.

Arielle Sandor as Catharine’s mother and Aaron Glasserman as her brother, reminiscent of the crass in-laws and their no-necked monsters (but grown up here) from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, contribute, in one-dimensional characterizations, to the conflict and provide additional local color. Katie McGunagle and Olivia Nice complete the cast in credible supporting roles.

A lighter tone — less desperate, less shocking, more subdued — prevails in Something Unspoken. As the title indicates, there are no truth serums here, and whatever the truth may be about the relationship between elderly Cornelia Scott (Taylor Mallory) and her loyal secretary and companion of 15 years, Grace Lancaster (Sarah Paton), that truth remains hidden.

We’re still in the posh Garden District of New Orleans, but the garden in this play — the set remains the same for the two pieces — with its pretty flowers and wandering vines, seems more than adequate to reflect the pleasant veneer of Cornelia’s privileged world and its subtle, disturbed suggestions of a lesbian romance beneath the surface. “There’s something unspoken between us that ought to be spoken,” Cornelia asserts.

But that mystery is destined to remain only subtext, as a drama involving Cornelia’s bid to win election as regent of the Confederate Daughters provides ample distraction, and a dose of humor for the audience, through a series of intrusive phone calls. When other distractions are not available, the reticent Grace plays classical music on the phonograph to help the two women “smooth things over” and regain a “sweet peace.”

Ms. Mallory and Ms. Paton develop these characters and their relationship with serious sensitivity and subtle understanding. There are a few moments where an unfortunate blocking choice directs an emotional speech by Cornelia towards the stage left wings rather than the audience, but these two performers are focused, convincing, and interesting in bringing to life these characters and this evocative, though minor, Williams one-act.

If, as the holiday season wears on, you’ve had enough of frenetic shopping, ringing sleigh bells, ho-hoing Santas and cute little elves, then Theatre Intime’s Garden District may provide just the antidote. In the hothouse setting of New Orleans’ Garden District and (in Catharine’s narration of her cousin’s final hours) the white hot light of Spain, these two plays present a searing look at human passions at their most raw. The poetry in the lines is rich, Tennessee Williams presents two or three of his most memorable characters, and the Theatre Intime Company delivers an admirable production.

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