Over the top

Overwrought Tennessee Williams and new heights for Gypsy Productions

When Tennessee Williams was good, he was very, very good. And when he was bad, he was wretched.

The Glass Menagerie is a nearly perfect play, tender and touching, moving from scene to scene with unerring emotional resonance. But Summer and Smoke is a baldly schematic exercise, two-dimensional at best, and written, it would seem, by a playwright who learned his craft on a blackboard. Night of the Iguana is brilliantly multifaceted meditation on human fallibility and divine grace. But The Rose Tatoo is so heavy with screaming symbolism and exaggerated emotion that it could turn a normal spectator against roses, against Williams, against theater itself. One could go on: A Streetcar Named Desire in the first column, Camino Real in the next, Sweet Bird of Youth in Group A, Clothes for a Summer Hotel in Group B. Williams certainly was one of the giants of 20th-century theater, but when he stumbled, he did so mightily.

Suddenly Last Summer is bad Tennessee Williams.

This overwrought grotesquerie is about life as a slaughterhouse, where innocent little sea turtles are annually eaten alive by vicious black birds representing a cruel and merciless God. In this mean and nasty place, gay poet Sebastian Venable — whose favorite plant, not coincidentally, is a Venus flytrap — has also come to a terrifying end. But his overbearing mother Violet refuses to believe the news of how Sebastian died and wants the news-bearer, her niece Catherine, to be silenced with a lobotomy. Violet arranges for a Dr. Sugar, from a nearby asylum, to administer truth serum to mentally disturbed Catherine, after which she's supposed to tell what really happened to Sebastian. But the truth is more shocking (run, turtles, run) than anything we might have guessed. And we're supposed to leave the theater traumatized by a vision so horrible yet unshakeable that we will never take an innocent breath on this earth again.

Or, more likely: We just don't buy it. I mean, come on. Get serious.

As if the play weren't silly enough in itself, Todd Olson has directed it with an improbable mix of high camp and earnestness that seems an amalgam of Edgar Allen Poe, Eudora Welty and Monty Python's Flying Circus. Olson is usually one of the best directors in the area, so I can't guess what moved him to make the choices in this Summer.

He has Lisa McMillan play Violet as an over-the-top female impersonator, the sort who uses words like "ghastly" and hams it up with every exaggerated gesture. His Dr. Sugar is Chris Friday, who comes across more as a seedy mendicant than as a reputable brain surgeon. Olson has pieces of Allen Loyds' set — including a heavy door and a row of shutters — collapse at key moments, as if in a particularly hokey Vincent Price movie. Fortunately, Katherine Michelle Tanner (as Catherine) is too talented an actress to fall in line with the other cast members, but even her prodigious skills can't make a silk purse of this sow's ear. Add the unconvincing acting of T. Scott Wooten as Catherine's brother and Jessica K. Peterson as her mother, and the result is a production that can't be forgotten too soon.

As many people know, Williams' mentally troubled sister Rose was indeed lobotomized when Williams was young, and this event was something for which he blamed himself years after (he thought he could have stopped it). Williams was enough of an artist to turn this brutal operation into the symbol of a small crystal unicorn losing its horn in The Glass Menagerie. But instead of stopping there, the playwright then imported the lobotomy theme untransformed into Summer, and it stands out so awkwardly here that the whole drama is damaged. Moral: Life is sometimes too improbable to be used for art.

Anyway, run, turtles, run. From those nasty black birds. And from Suddenly Last Summer.

Gypsy breaks out. Lee Blessing's Independence is one of the best shows Gypsy Productions has ever offered. Four excellent actresses, crackerjack direction and attractive design turn this exploration of family dysfunction into a riveting and rewarding two hours at the Suncoast Theatre. I recommend it to all truth-seekers hungry for drama with substance.

The play is about a cruel and disturbed woman, Evelyn Briggs (the very talented Lynne Locher), and her three daughters: Kess (the slowly unfolding Lisa Ruzzi), a lesbian who usually stays far from home; Jo (the superb LeAnn Chester), a single pregnant woman who has chosen to act as Evelyn's caretaker; and Sherry (the delightful Naomi R. Welsh), a resolutely promiscuous beauty who can't wait to graduate high school and leave home forever.

When the play begins, Kess has returned home to Independence, Iowa, to be with Jo as the latter recovers from a neck injury caused by their mother. In the course of nine well-crafted scenes, we watch the havoc Evelyn wreaks on the strong but still vulnerable younger women, and the bonding of the three in the face of their ruthless, needy opponent.

As directed by Trevor Keller and Brad Minus, Independence has the look and feel of life itself: unpredictable, only occasionally governable, never quite what it's supposed to be. Keller's living room set is the most convincing I've ever seen at the Suncoast, and the costumes, attributed to "Company," couldn't be more appropriate.

I may have seemed harsh in some of my reviews of earlier Gypsy productions, but it was always in the hopes that I'd eventually find a gem like this one. Now it's here, and I've got to tell you: This is worth your valuable time.

See it and feel better about your own family — and about the surprising Gypsy.

Pleasin' Season. American Stage has announced its 2007-2008 season, and it looks like a good one. Four of the plays are classics: Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (Sept. 14-Oct. 14), Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (Jan. 18-27), Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance (in the Park, April 11-27) and Shakespeare's Hamlet (May 23-June 1). The other shows are Stephen Temperley's musical Souvenir (Nov. 9-18), Betsy Howie and Mary Murfitt's Cowgirls (March 7-16), and Larry Shue's comedy The Foreigner (July 18-Aug. 12). For more information, call 727-823-PLAY.

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