". . . with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years." —Allen Ginsberg, from "Howl"
In his weird, great 1948 opus The White Goddess, Robert Graves writes at length about the sacred kings of goddess-worshipping societies: royal consorts, like drones in a beehive, who were permitted to enjoy their luxuries for a short while before being ritually slaughtered and replaced. Jesus giving his disciples bread-flesh and wine-blood? Repurposed sacred king lore, according to Graves's theory. The Bacchic women tearing Orpheus to shreds? Ditto. And ditto Suddenly Last Summer, as well.
Running now at Raven Theatre in a flawed production directed by Jason Gerace, Tennessee Williams's 1958 one-act is less a play than a lurid bit of storytelling set in an elaborate frame. The subject of the story, Sebastian Venable, is dead but far from forgotten. His mother, Violet, positively—not to say creepily—reveres him. A wealthy old New Orleans dowager possessing a hauteur Marie Antoinette might envy, Violet spent three months of every year trotting the globe with him on a kind of perpetual Grand Tour. But when a stroke made travel impossible for her, Sebastian picked a new companion from among his poor relations: his high-strung young cousin, Catharine. They vacationed together one summer at a seedy Spanish beach resort town called Cabeza de Lobo.
And that was where Sebastian died. Unnaturally. Catharine came home broken, telling a tale so grotesque, so perverse, so impossible to reconcile with Violet's conception of her son as a chaste, poetic seeker after God, that the old woman unilaterally declared Catharine mad, got her committed, and started making plans to have her lobotomized—that is, to get the offending narrative literally cut from her brain.
That's the background. The play itself unfolds in the courtyard of Violet's mansion, next to Sebastian's "well-groomed jungle" of a garden. Violet has summoned a psychiatrist, expecting him to OK the lobotomy in exchange for her promise to subsidize his work. Also present are Mrs. Holly and George, Catharine's impecunious mother and brother, already wholly owned Venable subsidiaries. Catharine herself arrives in the charge of a tough nun from the asylum.
The first three scenes set up the stakes, and also the atmospherics—that
combination of biography and surreal poetics that constitutes the Williams
cosmos. Biography: Williams famously had a sister, Rose, whose life was
destroyed by a lobotomy; he brooded on the loss in various ways in various plays. Here, he pushes all the way to wish fulfillment, creating a fictional chance for Rose-as-Catharine to fight back. Poetics: Ever surreal and self-consciously florid, Williams communes with the mythic in approaching the subject of Sebastian's fate.
Then comes scene four, i.e., the payoff, the whole of which is essentially a long monologue finally telling The Story in full.
Gerace's staging is surprisingly dull considering all the vivid opportunities-comic, tragic, and monstrous-Williams hands him. Violet is a true piece of work, telling people where to go and what to do and how few fucks she gives about them as long as they don't come between her and her 5 PM daiquiri. The doctor has a hell of a time trying to maintain a semblance of professional integrity in the face of Violet's frank attempts to buy him. (Maybe it hasn't occurred to her in her—in her innocence, he stammers, trying to finesse the unfinesse-able, but someone might "possibly interpret this offer of a subsidy as—well, a sort of a bribe?") And the Holly contingent are pure, pathetic farce—especially George, to whom it doesn't occur that it may be a tad insensitive to wear the clothes he inherited from Sebastian on a visit to Sebastian's mother. Even the tough nun cuts a memorable figure.
But Mary K. Nigohosian's Violet is all one-note, and a screechy one at that: merely querulous when the character has it in her to be everything from a magnificent harridan to a grieving mother (with something of the lover thrown in). Similarly, Wardell Julius Clark fails to exploit the doctor's full potential, maintaining his probity at the cost of any question about what choices he'll make. Grayson Heyl overplays Catharine's skittishness at first, yet she comes into her own in time for that harrowing sacred-king story, effectively communicating the sense of a trauma relived. While she's doing that, though, something strange happens: Gerace adds a piece of action that isn't in the script, makes no sense, and undercuts everything Heyl's built up to that point. I'd like to think it was an opening-night mishap. Everything but good sense suggests it wasn't. v