Suddenly Last Summer began its off-Broadway run in 1958, and was adapted into a movie one year later. Sixty-two years after its initial release, this Tennessee Williams one-act is still going strong at Epic Theatre in Cranston under the direction of Geoff Leatham.
Artist’s Exchange’s 50 Rolfe Square space is cozy and quaint, designed to immerse you in the story of Violet, Catherine, Dr. Sugar and the mystery of how Violet’s son, Sebastian, died. There is not a bad seat in the theater.
The star of the show is Betsy Rinaldi, who played a phenomenal Catherine. Each line was delivered with emotion, and you can’t help but believe what she says. Rinaldi is animated throughout, whether she’s flopping on the couch, running around the stage or simply crying as she remembers the trauma that she experienced. The bond that she has with Sister Felicity (played by the wonderful Paula Glen) is very obvious as well. Overall, Rinaldi is well deserving of the lead; I could feel each of the emotions that she showed: anger, fear, happiness and tranquility.
Becky Minard is outstanding in the role of Violet Venable. As she moves around the stage in her wheelchair, speaking harshly to her guests or Miss Foxhill (played by a very talented Carolyn Coughlin), the audience could tell that she was tense, remembering her son’s death and having to speak to the woman who she believed killed him. Minard is a strong actress who steals the show in every scene she is in.
Dr. Cukrowicz (or Dr. Sugar as he is referred to in the show) is played by a brilliant Alvaro Beltran. Throughout the panic going on in the show, as the characters attempt to determine the truth about what happened to Sebastian, Beltran stays calm and collected.
One thing that this production plays with is the idea of perspective. Everyone thinks that Catherine is manic, including her own mother, Mrs. Holly (Michelle Mania) and her younger brother, George Holly (played by Nick D’Amico). No one believes that she is telling the truth about what happened to Sebastian. In the show, Catherine even admits that she writes her diary in the third person — “what will she do next?” — “she” referring to Catherine herself. Violet has a different idea of what happened to her son, and tells that version of the story to anyone who will listen. Dr. Sugar acts as the mediator, writing notes from each person and trying to learn what actually happened.
The judicious use of lighting is something that really adds to the production; each time a character would recall the summer that Sebastian died, a tight spot would focus on them, and they would move to the center of the stage. During one of Catherine’s biggest moments toward the end of the play, as she reminisces about her time with Sebastian, reliving her trauma, the lights change from white to light orange. It is a subtle change, but an important one, symbolizing the end of the “white sands on the beach” and the beginning of a sunset, the end of Sebastian’s life.
Because of the design of the theater, sounds can be heard all around you. Theodore Clement, in his sound design, used this to his advantage. With each important line or monologue, sounds of nature can be heard, making the audience feel as though they are really there. In the climax of the show, the sound of birds and a band can be heard in the background. However, as this memory grows stronger, the sounds get louder, effectively showing Catherine’s spiral into her trauma. When Dr. Sugar could place a hand on her arm, the sounds would stop, snapping her out of it. Throughout Suddenly Last Summer, the sounds contribute to the feeling of being inside Catherine’s mind, a smart choice.
This production stands out for another reason: There is always something happening on stage. As Violet reads Sebastian’s poems, Catherine is mouthing the words to them. Her memorization of these poems is important, and shows the love that she had for Sebastian. While Catherine and Mrs. Holly speak, George is off in the background, bouncing a ball on a tennis racket. Finally, when Catherine’s story is over, the other characters all react — Sister Felicity, a nun from St. Mary’s, begins to pray, a panicked Mrs. Holly is crying, and Violet, as aggressive as ever, attempts to use violence toward a screaming Catherine.
Above all, Suddenly Last Summer is a story with mysterious and dramatic tones about understanding and respecting other people’s perspectives. What sets this play apart for me is the cast. The actors are absolutely outstanding, and it was clear that they knew their characters very well. Between the cast, the theater and the story, this is definitely a show that’s well worth your time.
Suddenly Last Summer plays through Jan 25 at Epic Theatre (50 Rolfe Sq in Cranston). For tickets and more information, visit: epictheatreri.org or artists-exchange.org/events