A tip for seeing ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ at Heartland Theatre: Don't watch the movie
Director Tom Mitchell makes his Heartland Theatre debut with a new production of Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer” on three weekends at the Normal Community Activity Center.
The production, running Sept. 1-17, opens Heartland Theatre’s 2022-23 season.
Mitchell, a retired University of Illinois professor, may be new to Heartland Theatre, but he is very familiar with the playwright, having directed Williams' works on five previous occasions. In a conversation with WGLT, Mitchell said he feels connected to Williams, in large part because of their common Midwestern roots.
“Everybody thinks about Williams as a Southern playwright, but he really grew up and spent most of his time in St. Louis,” Mitchell said. “I find as a Midwesterner myself that I have a lot in common with him.”
“Suddenly Last Summer” is perhaps lesser known compared to Williams’ most popular plays like “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Yet the play’s protagonist, Sebastian, is a semi-autobiographical figure — though Sebastian appears in dialogue only, having mysteriously died while traveling in Spain with his cousin, Catharine.
“As in many of his plays, you can find bits of Williams in several of the characters,” Mitchell said. “His own life experience shows up in the plot of ‘Suddenly Last Summer.’”
Catharine’s character echoes Rose, Williams’ older sister. Rose Williams (who also is modeled in the role of Laura Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie”) developed schizophrenia at a young age and was institutionalized following a prefrontal lobotomy authorized by the siblings’ mother, Edwina.
In the play, Catharine is thought to be mentally ill. She "babbles" too easily, disclosing damning details about Sebastian’s life and the circumstances surrounding his death. Seeking to protect her son’s reputation, Mrs. Violet Venable invites a psychiatrist to examine Catharine in hope of persuading him to sedate her by performing a lobotomy.
Penned in 1957, “Suddenly Last Summer” was written at a time when women were institutionalized for being “hysterical.” An NPR report indicated that around 50,000 people, primarily women, received lobotomies in the United States. Most took place between 1949 and 1952, diagnosed as a treatment for schizophrenia, anxiety and depression, among other ailments.
Williams’ progressive approach to Violet and Catharine gives each woman the benefit of the doubt — despite their contradicting stories.
“As we started rehearsal, I was struck by having a play that’s dominated by women,” Mitchell said. “The center of the play are these two very strong women who are squaring off with one another. It’s absolutely a play that has a very strong feminine point of view and great dimensional female characters.”
That’s not to say that “Suddenly Last Summer” feels modern, exactly. The setting is firmly planted in 1930s New Orleans. Williams employs subversion and metaphors that, taken at face value, are exceedingly uncomfortable (no spoilers!). But Mitchell reminds theater-goers to come in without preconceived notions and to avoid making literal connections to the plot.
“One of the difficult things today in viewing Williams is that so many of his plays were made into movies in the middle part of the 20th century,” Mitchell said. “If that’s your sense of what Williams is going to be, it isn’t quite what you’re going to experience.”
Live theater, by contrast, is interpreted anew by 21st century actors and designers each time a play is produced. In that sense, Mitchell sees Williams as a relevant figure in today's contemporary theater.
“The characters that Williams creates and the conflicts that he puts onstage are real,” he said. “They relate to real experience. They are truthful to human experience.”
“Suddenly Last Summer” plays Sept. 1-17 at the Heartland Theatre, located in the Normal Community Activity Center, 1110 Douglas St., Normal. Tickets are on sale at heartlandtheatre.org.