AvantBard Theatre sets a sultry mood for Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer (★★★☆☆) by commencing the evening with Williams' lesser-known one-act, Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen. Featuring an unnamed Woman (Miss Kitty) and Man (Erik Harrison) lounging in a Hell's Kitchen flophouse, the brief drama — written in 1953, four years before Summer — bears no relationship to the later play, and traverses only the slightest plot of its own.
The audience surrounds scenic designer David C. Ghatan's set of tall window panes practically caging the couple inside, echoing their palpable sense of feeling trapped — with each other, with their lot in life. Director Christopher Henley sends the Woman ranging from windowpane to windowpane as she sings her pain, then, in a shout, the play is done. Talk to Me Like the Rain serves as a pleasing, if insubstantial, amuse-bouche for the Southern-fried main course of Williams' lengthier one-act classic.
More substantially, the evening's prologue establishes the incandescent presence of Miss Kitty, who has far fewer lines playing officious assistant Miss Foxhill in Suddenly Last Summer, but nevertheless can take full command of a moment with merely a pause. Her Miss Foxhill utterly belongs in the upper-crust New Orleans household of society widow Violet Venable, embodied with venomous appeal by a wonderful Cam Magee. Portraying pithy, imposing Violet, Magee conveys a distinctively Southern flavor of demonstrative, but she isn't pointlessly florid. She's matter-of-fact — about her grand life, her opinions, and her contempt for niece Catherine Holly (Sara Barker), since young Cathy won't stop “babbling” the most horrid story about what caused the sudden death last summer of Violet's beloved son Sebastian.
The widow Venable has summoned psychiatrist Doctor Cukrowicz (Matt Sparacino) to her manse to discuss ways of treating Cathy into silence. The play, of course, builds to Cathy spilling every awful detail of what happened to her same-sex-loving cousin Sebastian, and Barker molds her performance suitably to the rising crescendo of Cathy's emotions and stunning revelations. Hers is a florid turn, but if there's any writer whose language can absorb such flamboyant moves, it's Tennessee Williams.
Sparacino goes too far in the other direction, rendering an opaque Cukrowicz who works as interlocutor to draw out Cathy's truth, but doesn't much affect the temperature otherwise. Harrison, who spends most of Talk to Me Like the Rain lounging in silence, finds a consistently amusing register for his Summer supporting role as Cathy's dim brother George, alongside Megan Morgan's smart turn as their mother Mrs. Holly, caught between her love for Cathy and her fealty to Violet's dough. Wrapped in her fox stole, Mrs. Holly appears desperate to please the more powerful Violet, despite the potential cost to her own daughter. Money, power, and morality mix bitterly in the Venable household, sweetened by the honey-dripping poetry of the Bard of the South.
Suddenly Last Summer runs in repertory with Ada and the Engine through April 5 at the Gunston Arts Center, 2700 South Lang Street in Arlington, Va. Tickets are $40. Call 202-628-6161, or visit www.avantbard.org.
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