Review: SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER at Raven Theatre

Review: SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER at Raven Theatre

Pictured (l-r): Janyce Caraballo, Mary K. Nigohosian, Wardell Julius Clark and Grayson Heyl. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

By Elizabeth Ellis

Most of the many characters who inhabit Tennessee Williams’ universe share a particular hallmark: they neither set nor observe healthy boundaries. This behavior can create great and timeless drama, while it also can occasionally result in incredibly uncomfortable, and even shocking, revelations. Such is the case with Williams’ lyrical but deeply disturbing one-act play, SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, given a gorgeous interpretation by Raven Theatre. The consistently excellent cast, with urgent and fearless direction from Jason Gerace, spill secrets and relationships and activities that give this short yet intense play all the gravity and dimension of a script twice its length.

Humidity. Passion. Heat. Violence under a patina of gentility. Yes, you’re in New Orleans, in the Garden District, circa 1936. Wealthy widow Mrs. Violet Venable (the excellent Mary K. Nigohosian, recalling the steel and haughtiness of Katharine Hepburn) has invited Dr. Cukrowicz, a psychiatrist (Wardell Julius Clark, in a beautifully precise performance) to her gracious mansion. While touring her late son Sebastian’s well-tended “jungle garden,” she explains to the doctor that she and Sebastian used to take trips together every summer until last, when Sebastian traveled with his cousin and Violet’s niece, Katherine. Violet has never approved of Catherine and her family since they come from far more modest means than the Venables. During their trip, Sebastian passed away under mysterious circumstances, and since her return, the exceedingly traumatized Catherine has been confined to a psychiatric institution. Violet also contends that Catherine has been slandering Sebastian’s name and accusing him of scandalous behavior (read: homosexuality). She then makes Dr. Cukrowicz a rather surprising proposal: If he agrees to perform a lobotomy on Catherine, literally cutting the memories out of her brain, Violet will make a substantial donation to Dr. Cukrowicz’s ongoing research. Catherine (Grayson Heyl, in a heartbreaking and standout performance) arrives with her mother and brother, who are hoping that Catherine will keep quiet, since Violet will not allow Sebastian’s will to be probated until she is satisfied with the explanation for his death. While Dr. Cukrowicz won’t say if he’ll perform a lobotomy, he does inject Catherine with a truth serum. Catherine reveals Sebastian’s dissolute and dangerous behavior, how she helped Sebastian by acting as his procurer, and the horrific and gruesome manner of his death. Violet, enraged at the character assassination suggested by Catherine, flies at her but is taken away before she can do her any real harm.

From the very beginning, Williams’ use of imagery is as much a part of the script as any character. Sebastian’s intentionally tangled and overgrown gardenmeticulously executed by set designer Joanna Iwanickademonstrates the beauty and brutality in a jungle, and the predators, like Sebastian, who reside there. Violet herself is a devourer, as her wholly inappropriate obsession with her son nearly consumes him. Iwanicka also presents a functioning fountain with a statue of a naked woman embracing herself protectively, as though shielding herself from being hit? Shame? Truth? All of which could apply to the women in the play. The garden dominates the marvelous set, as it drips with steamy New Orleans heat. Claire Chrzan’s moody lighting design and Christopher Kriz’s era-perfect sound design complete and complement the set.

The supporting cast (Ayanna Bria Bakari, Ann James, Andrew Rathgeber, and understudy Song Marshall on opening night) each turn in wonderful performances. Nigohosian’s and Heyl’s performances are the twin anchors of the showNigohosian’s Violet comes across at first as sweet as sweet tea and peach cobbler, which belie the depth of her frighteningly menacing intentions inside. Heyl misses the mark a bit on her depiction of a smoker, but that quibble aside, her Catherine embodies the fluttering unsteadiness of a deeply wounded soul, yet reserves the strength to face down Violet in a battle of truth versus ego.

Moments after the shocking details about Sebastian’s death are revealed, the play ends. It would be fascinating to see how each of the characters react as the truth sinks in, even if it means extending the play by several minutes. But alas, that’s not this script. That aside, Raven’s SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER is a stellar interpretation of one of Williams’ most affecting and challenging plays.

SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER runs through June 17th. For more information visit

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.