Credit: DJ Corey Photography

In her luxurious New Orleans home, Violet Venable (Cam Magee) has been entertaining a visitor in a greenhouse where her late son, Sebastian, cultivated his collection of exotic flora, primordial remnants of those species that first spread their leaves hundreds of millions of years ago. Violet holds a fanatical idolatry for her son, with whom she traveled about the world every summer, exploring not just its natural wonders, but its great cosmopolitan cities and sacred sites. The travels would inform the latest volume of his self-published Poem of Summer.

The guest is Doctor Cukrowicz (Matt Sparacino), a psychiatrist whose experience with Anglo-Saxons’ inability or unwillingness to utter a Polish surname causes him to suggest “Doctor Sugar” as an alternative. Violet is offering funding for his research into what was in 1935 a cutting edge treatment: the lobotomy. There is a single string attached. Because Violet was unable to accompany Sebastian on his travels last summer, he took his cousin, Catherine Holly (Sara Barker) to Spain, instead. Catherine’s bizarre account of Sebastian’s death has been a source of scandal that Violet wishes to quash. The Hollys are a side of the family the matriarch does not wish to acknowledge, and she does not approve of Sebastian’s action of including them in his will. Thus she wants Cukrowicz to experiment on Catherine.

Tennessee Williams once stated that Suddenly Last Summer was “perhaps the most poetic” of his plays and each line of dialogue and element of Avant Bard Artistic Director Emeritus Christopher Henley’s staging has a powerful impact. It reminds the audience that despite costume designer Anna Marquardt’s striking work, especially with Violet’s devoré velvet wardrobe and Cukrowicz’s white suit, Williams southern gothic play is no mere costume drama: Williams’ dense piling on of symbols and allegories for instinctual drives, spiritual yearning, and class conflict long-ago cemented his stance as a titan of American theater.

Magee invests Violet with such a zealous devotion to her son that any evidence that he might not have been chaste has become a form of blasphemy. Her wealth is the power with which to bend the world to her will now that her one source of joy is dead. 

Williams illustrates the ways truth and power are always shaping one another, and this is exemplified in Barker’s performance as Catherine. She is subject to the institutional power of the sanatorium where she is a patient, as represented by Sister Felicity (Christine Hirrel), her family’s desire to inherit the money Sebastian left them, Violet’s desire to silence her, men who use her for their needs, and Doctor Sugar, who will judge whether she is a suitable candidate for his procedure. She only has her version of the truth, which may either condemn her or exonerate her, and every line in Barker’s reading reveals that understanding.

There are also magnificent performances from the supporting cast. As the doctor, Sparacino is wonderfully understated as he wrestles between his need to fund research that he believes may benefit humanity and whether or not he is being asked to add to that suffering. Miss Kitty makes Violet’s servant Miss Foxhill, a character with few lines, memorable, encoding her employer’s contempt for others into a repertoire of gestures. Her poker face conceals the pleasure she takes in being the instrument of Violet’s power.

The evening’s entertainment also includes one of Williams’ short plays, Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen, A two-hander featuring Miss Kitty and Erik Harrison as an unnamed couple living in squalor in a Hell’s Kitchen apartment adorned with a milk crates, a mattress, and a record player. Miss Kitty belts out an unaccompanied “Lover, Come Back to Me” in a rubato baritone. While he has come back, it may not be for long. Though they love each other painfully, it is impossible for them to stay together: He is an alcoholic constantly waking from blackouts in strange parts of town; she has an eating disorder and imagines herself disappearing under an assumed name to live out her years in a seaside hotel reading books until her hair turns white and she wastes away.

In rep with Ada and the Engine to April 5 at 2700 South Lang St., Arlington. $10–$40. (703) 418-4808. avantbard.org.

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