One of the pleasant surprises in the Sackett Group’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer comes before you even enter the theater. The a/c in the Brooklyn Music School Playhouse is hugely noisy, so they don’t run it during the show, meaning that, well, the temperature gets ugly pretty fast. Fortunately, for the price of your seat you also get a little paper Chinese fan and a bottle of cold water. To Gothamist, this gesture summed up one difference between Broadway and off-off-Broadway pretty neatly: in the first, they charge you $4 for your water, in the second they give it to you for free, with a smile and a personal cooling system on the side to boot. Of course, in the plush, frigid Times Square theaters you wouldn’t need to cool off in the first place, but that’s besides the point.
The fans are a nice touch in this case for another reason, which is that the play takes place in the South, at a time when such accessories were in more general use among elegant women. One such lady here is Mrs. Violet Venable (Dorothy Stasney), who is elderly and unsteady in body and mind in some ways, but formidable in others. Her beloved son has died in suspicious circumstances, and she believes her niece Catherine (Ellen Lindsay) is to blame. To get the girl, who is spreading her side of the unsavory story, out of the picture, Mrs. Venable has brought in a doctor (Matthew Healy) to meet Catherine and see whether she might be lobotomized. He’s more reasonable than the old woman, though, and instead of taking a knife to Catherine at her aunt’s bidding, he gets her to talk, and a disturbing tale emerges.
There are other characters and a bigger plot line, mostly to do with Catherine’s family’s desire to get money from Mrs. Venable, but in this production little of that comes across very well. Stasney and especially Lindsay as Catherine dominate the cast; Lindsay fits her part so naturally and has such poise and passion that she quickly becomes the shining center of the show. Williams may have intended Catherine to be the focal point, but surely he wanted the supporting cast to provide a richer, more complicated context; here, unfortunately one is left wondering at times why the other characters are there at all – Mrs. Venable and Catherine both have nurses, and Catherine’s mother and brother are visiting Mrs. Venable with her, but for the most part they are just part of the scenery. When they’re not, as when the brother (David Sochet) gets riled up, they stick out oddly; Sochet’s take on George Holly makes the young man seem bizarrely like a slightly feebleminded ghetto kid.
Though the theater, which is basically a high school auditorium, has terrible acoustics and reminded Gothamist a little too much of student productions, Williams’ writing, especially toward the end, helps to save the show; his descriptions and sense for rhythm, as uttered by Catherine, are wonderful. One wishes the director, Robert Weinstein, would have given more attention to incorporating and enlivening characters on the periphery, helping them to move and stand more naturally, fleshing out their somewhat sordid world. Still, it’s a treat to watch Ellen Lindsay and to be mesmerized by Williams’ words in one of his less-produced plays. As with so many of his works, you get to leave the theater feeling thankful that your life and relationships are so much less fraught with drama. In heat and humidity like we’ve been having, even with a fan in hand, that’s no small thing.
Details: Suddenly Last Summer is showing at the Brooklyn Music School Playhouse, 126 St. Felix Street, until August 7. Tickets are available through Smarttix.