Blythe Danner and Gale Harold in Suddenly Last Summer
(© Joan Marcus)
Blythe Danner and Gale Harold in Suddenly Last Summer
(© Joan Marcus)
In his feverish one-act Suddenly Last Summer, Tennessee Williams doesn't stipulate that the predatory, self-deluding Violet Venable has emphysema. Nevertheless, in the Roundabout Theatre Company's current Off-Broadway production, Blythe Danner and director Mark Brokaw seem to have decided that she suffers from the affliction as severely as she's driven by an aversion to the truth about her dead son, Sebastian. Every so often, Danner's Violet halts in the middle of a word to gasp distressingly for air; sometimes, she does this while flaunting a lighted cigarette in a holder with aging-belle haughtiness.

This is only one of the brave choices that the patrician, husky-voiced Danner makes in her blazingly brilliant performance. The character's surname contains the word "venal" and is also only two letters short of "venerable"; Danner, ambulating with deliberate uncertainty in Santo Loquasto's flowing summer frock, doesn't fail to get both attributes into her terrifyingly subtle interpretation. She's simultaneously frightening and pathetic as Violet orders her retainers about and loses her precarious balance often enough to call for a wheelchair.

Always a superlative actress, Danner has rarely if ever been challenged to create quite such a complex figure. As Violet vehemently insists that her late son was a fine poet and commendably celibate despite stories to the contrary, Danner makes her bid to become a true grande dame of the theater. She fully commands the spotlight during the first half of Williams' frenzied farrago, but she has to relinquish it for the play's harrowing second-half; that's when Violet's nemesis, Catharine Holly (Carla Gugino), arrives to report her version of Sebastian's death. It's an account so disturbing to Violet that she has bribed Dr. Cukrowicz, a mental-home brain surgeon (Gale Harold), to contemplate a lobotomy for the possibly not deluded young woman -- who happens to be her niece.

Gugino, the only commendable participant in the Roundabout production of Arthur Miller's After the Fall, runs with this part. Catharine, who's already been institutionalized for some months, realizes that she's a pawn in her aunt's cruel scheme and therefore doesn't want to relate her first-hand observations of Sebastian; but, having been given a shot of sodium pentathol, she's forced to relive the sweltering day on which he died in a virtually uninterrupted, brutally poetic speech that's typical of Williams at his most excessive and melodramatic. Gugino does as fine a job with this monologue as anyone could hope for; not only is terror in her eyes, it appears to be coursing through her bodacious body, encased in what Catharine proudly proclaims is an Elsa Schiaparelli dress. (Loquasto does well by the costume.) This young woman has got the fidgets, and they're only partially assuaged by the cigarette she has begged for.

Suddenly Last Summer had its initial outing Off-Broadway in 1958 as the second-half of a double bill titled Garden District; it gained its notoriety from its 1959 film version starring Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Montgomery Clift as the doctor who feeds the questions to Violet and Catharine that get them spouting Williams' lush lines. Unfortunately, the bronze-haired Harold simply isn't up to the latter role, to put it mildly.

The other characters include Catharine's white-trash mother (Becky Ann Baker) and brother (Wayne Wilcox), but Williams isn't more than cursorily interested in them -- not when he has his two archetypal ladies to guide around. Sadly, Brokaw doesn't know what to do with the others, either. He just keeps the supporting cast quietly out of the way.

Another thing Brokaw doesn't do is require any of the players to react to their environment; the Venables' house and garden is a vivid realization of the tropical jungle that Sebastian had created as a literal expression of his torrid mind. You'd think people would react to the heat, especially since it echoes the subject matter. But they don't. It's left to Danner and Gugino to steam up the stage, and they do.