For iconic gay playwright Tennessee Williams, love was never about hearts and flowers. The passions that fuel his mighty body of work ( A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin roof ) are ruinous rather than rose-tinted. As Williams points out early in Suddenly Last Summer, the Venus Flytrapa "devouring organism"is named for the Goddess of Love.
Running through Sunday, June 17, at Rogers Park's Raven Theatre, Suddenly Last Summer is a torrid Southern gothic mystery revolving around the mysterious death of a young gay poet. The plot deals with cannibalism and lobotomies and the truly shocking lengths one family will go to keep its secrets closeted.
"'This is a play about the muzzling of a strong female voice," said director Jason Gerace. "It mirrors today's society in that we all want our opinions heard, but we're often losing the ability to argue in a constructive matter."
The strong female voice at the nexus of Suddenly Last Summer belongs to Catherine Holly ( Grayson Heyl ), the beloved sister of the late poet Sebastian. At lights up, Catherine is confined to a mental hospital. Her aunt Violet ( Mary K. Nigohosian ) is determined to silence Catherinethereby keeping the horrific details about Sebastian's murder a deeply buried secret.
Violet's final solution is lobotomizing Catherine, a procedure that was cutting edge during the play's mid-20th-century setting. Williams was tragically familiar with the impact of lobotomies, which involve driving a sharp spike through the skull of the patient and essentially turning off a section of the brain. The operation was often used on violent patients, rendering them docile, vacant and calm. Rose's life was snuffed out in many respects," said Gerace. "She was vibrant, beautiful and strong-minded. She was brutally oppressed. Williams never got over his anger."
As Williams' razor-wire dialogue moves relentlessly toward revelation, it takes on the urgency of a suicide mission. The details of Sebastian's death remain as shocking today as they were when the play debuted in 1958. As the one-act progresses, the audience becomes a fly-on-the-wall for a harrowing journey through sex, loneliness, violence andthis above all elsesecrecy.
Despite the barbarically outdated medical practices, Suddenly, Last Summer remains eerily of-the-moment: The questions the drama elicits aren't only applicable to a tragedy set more than half a century ago in New Orleans' Garden District, Heyl said.
"Whose truth is the correct truth? Who gets to decide which is right? What happens when somebody in power insists 'alternative facts' are the real truth, because the real truth is inconvenient?" Heyl said.
'Suddenly Last summer mirrors today's society. We all want our opinion heard, but sometimes we refuse to listen to others. I feel like we're losing the ability to argue in a constructive manner. Especially on social media where it's so easy to just attack someone," Heyl added.
Class issues also rear up within Williams' play, Gerace said. "The play is all about devouring, literally and metaphorically. It's about how the rich or powerful can devour the poor, even if they're in their own family," he said.
As a doctor called in to treat Catherine, Wardell Julius Clark plays one of the drama's most intriguing characters, a psychologist asked to do monstrous things by a woman he can ill afford to deny. Dr. Cukrowicz may be a supporting lead, but the weight of his decisions has a profound impact on every single person around him. In some ways, he's the reluctant moral compass of the tragedy.
"He is passionate about his job and compassionate with his patients," Clark said of his role. "He truly believes he is helping and the practice ( of lobotomy ) while fairly new and radical, does have positive initial effects. But he has a real problem about the lack of certainty with long term effects and the need for the procedure on many patients. He has a great deal of heart and and weighs each decision very carefully."
For Gerace, Suddenly Last Summer hits the sweet spot of provocation, leaving audience members to question their own beliefs the events leading up to the fateful meeting among Violet, Catherine and Dr. Cukrowicz.
"Why do we allow people who are wealthy and powerful say something factual is actually false just because they don't like the facts? Gerace asked. "If enough people in power say so, what's false becomes recognized as true." The play also asks "what lengths we'll go to in order to keep a woman quiet," Gerace said.
For Catherine, those lengths are potentially lethal. For Violet, they're rooted in denial as unmoving as granite. Gerace hopes the play lays bare the danger of complicity.
"When there's a woman talking about something we don't like, why are we always so determined to stop them any way we can? That's something we're dealing with today," he said.
Suddenly Last Summer runs through Sunday, June 17, at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. General-admission tickets are $43-46; $38-$41 for seniors and teachers; $15 students for active military and veterans; and $30 anyone under 30 for Thursday performances. Visit RavenTheatre.com .