If there was any proof needed about the value of diversity in theatrical casting, let there be "Suddenly Last Summer" shining as a beacon that it’s not just the right thing to do – it often can make a show better.
The Uprooted Theater production of the Tennessee Williams classic opened Thursday night at Next Act Theater and was the kind of Tennessee Williams added value you rarely see.
Under the direction of Dennis F. Johnson, Marti Gobel and a wonderful cast of black actors took this play by the quintessential white southerner and gave it the kind of soul you almost never see.
Williams may well be the greatest American playwright, and his scathing look at both his family and his upbringing are plays that speak to the dangers and demons of the lives of women and men raised in cloistered Southern households. "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Glass Menagerie" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" are white plays in set in white homes and cities and about white lives.
It is with some courage that Gobel, Johnson and their plucky theater – which is folding up shot after this production – take on a play like "Summer."
This is the story of a Southern lady, Violet Venable (Gobel), and her never-seen son Sebastian. The two of them had made a lovely couple during a string of summer travels. One year here, the next year there. They were famous, not as mother and son, but as a couple.
And then it happened.
Suddenly last summer Violet had a stroke and couldn’t travel. So Sebastian took his cousin, Catherine with him to Mexico. And he died. Bad heart.
Violet blames Catherine, who she has put into a mental institution, for the death of her son. She calls a doctor to meet Catherine and, perhaps, perform a lobotomy on her.
It’s a vile plan and one that doesn’t promise anything close to the answers Violet is searching for.
The first half of this play is all Violet, her disgust, her pain and her imperious way of life that is empty without her son. The second half is all Catherine, obviously as crazy as crazy can be but able to recollect the way things really were when Sebastian died under the onslaught of a pack of "small, naked black children who chased him up the hill."
In a darkened theater, it is Gobel’s voice we hear first, off stage, as she says "Yes ... "
It is suddenly eloquent testimony that we better pay attention because something special is afoot. And it is truly special.
First, of course, is Gobel. She is a force of nature. People used to say about Michael Jordan that his greatest gift was that he made all those around him better players. His shoulders carried everyone around him.
Gobel is the Michael Jordan of this play, and most of the plays she is in. She makes everyone around her better. It’s as if she holds out her hand and says, "Hold on to my hand and come with me. It’s going to be a great ride."
There is no clearer example of this than the performance of Sola Thompson who plays Catherine. With her detailed and profound performance of a woman tormented by both her demons and those all around her, she matches Gobel step for step. Watching her reach into places she didn’t even know existed we cringe with her pains, and we duck from the fearsome darts being thrown from her disturbing reality.
Running a small theater company is a thankless and difficult task, and in its six year history, Uprooted has tried and tried and tried. There have been great moments and some less than that. But they have provided opportunity for actors and directors of color to find work. To be on stage.
The easy thing to do is say "good for them."
But the best thing to say, as shown in this production, is "good for us."
Uprooted is going to be missed.
"Suddenly Last Summer" runs through Sunday and information on tickets and showtimes can be found here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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