When Tennessee Williams’ Southern Gothic classic “Suddenly, Last Summer” opened as an off-Broadway production in 1958, the Mississippi playwright already had been cast, a bit begrudgingly, as one of America’s most prominent literary figures.
His breakthrough play, “The Glass Menagerie,” had put his name on marquees and in newspapers across the country nearly a decade earlier, but plays and their film adaptations such as “A Street Car Named Desire,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “The Rose Tattoo” had catapulted the notoriously private and shy Williams to the peaks of fame.
There had been setbacks, too. His comparatively poorly reviewed and lowly attended plays “Camino Real,” “Summer and Smoke” and “Orpheus Descending” only emboldened Williams’ self-critical nature and reinforced his lifelong battle with depression and self-doubt.
For its part, “Suddenly, Last Summer” served as Williams’ counter-punch to the harshest critics of “Orpheus Descending,” which had premiered the year before to mixed reviews and closed after fewer than 70 shows.
Born in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1911, Williams was the son of a Southern duality: his father, Cornelius, a mountain-hard traveling shoe salesman from Tennessee, and his mother, Edwina, a polished, would-be Southern belle and daughter of the local Episcopal rector. Through much of his Williams' youth, his father traveled extensively, allowing the family some shelter from his violent alcoholism and Williams, a frail and sickly boy since birth, temporary relief from his father’s scorn. His mother, on the other hand, was often described as overbearing and possessive of her children.
In 1918 the family relocated to St. Louis, where Williams’ Southern accent and dysfunctional family became a focal point for ridicule among his classmates. Writing became Williams’ escape as a teenager, and he penned award-winning essays based on his life throughout the late 1920s.
He went on to study journalism at the University of Missouri, but he was called home by his father after failing an ROTC course during his junior year. Upon his return, Williams obtained employment at the local shoe factory. Exhaustion and unresolved psychological trauma ultimately led Williams to suffer a mental breakdown, at which point he moved to Memphis to recuperate at his grandfather’s home.
He graduated from the University of Iowa’s English program in 1938 and spent the next few years traveling, working menial labor jobs and using grant money to fund his short stories, from which many of his plays would be drawn.
Following the 1944 and 1947 Broadway debuts of “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Williams penned seven Broadway hits, earned two Pulitzer Prize awards, a Tony, three New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards and three Donaldson Awards within 11 years.
Following the death of his longtime partner, Frank Merlo, in 1963, Williams spent two decades descending into his struggles with depression, alcoholism and drug abuse. In the winter of 1983, at 71, Williams passed away in a New York City hotel room.
But Williams has lived on, both in his work and among the preservation of Southern life and culture.
A one-act play consisting of only two main characters, “Suddenly, Last Summer” is often hailed as one of Williams’ most bare productions, yet also one of his most symbolic, lyrical and elegant works. Williams wrote the play after beginning psychoanalysis treatments. The discipline’s primary focus is aimed at treating mental health disorders by tapping into the unconscious mind, a concept around which Williams’ story loosely revolves.
The play opens to find that Catharine Holly, a poor, extended relative of an affluent New Orleans family, has been sent to a psychiatric hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown. Under questioning by her psychiatrist, Catharine claims to have witnessed the gruesome murder of her cousin, Sebastian, during their trip to Europe together a short time before. A truth serum causes Catharine to reveal that a group of locals killed Sebastian in shocking fashion after he used Catharine to lure several young men to him so he might bed them himself.
Desperate to deny her son’s homosexuality and conceal the circumstances of his death, Sebastian’s mother, Violet Venable, threatens to lobotomize her niece if she continues to discuss the traumatizing experience with anyone. A tug-of-war between status and sanity, truth and pretense, love and reputation, ensues.
Directed by Don Brandenburg, “Suddenly, Last Summer” will run at Footlight Players Theatre, 20 Queen St., until Feb. 5.
Performances are at 8 p.m. on Jan. 27, 28 and Feb. 2, 3 and 4, with a matinee at 3 p.m. on Jan. 29 and Feb. 5. Tickets are $30 for adults, $27 for military/seniors and $20 for students. Order tickets online at www.FootlightPlayers.net or by calling the box office at 843-722-4487.
This play is not suitable for children.