James Becker, Patti Flaherty, Noel Jean Huntley, and Matt Walsh in Suddenly Last Summer

If you find yourself at odds with gloomy October weather, walking into Moline's Black Box Theatre and its production of Suddenly Last Summer will brighten your spirits, given that you can’t help but be immediately impressed by the onstage greenery.

Designed by Lora Adams (also the show’s director and sound/costume designer) and constructed by Michael Kopriva, the ferns ooze Southern climate and immediately give you a sense of location. Sprinkle in a few chairs and tables, and the garden appears to be a fine place at which to relax, read, or simply enjoy nature. Fellow Reader reviewer Roger Pavey Jr.s lighting design worked especially well in bringing this garden to life; the lights created beautiful shadows from the ornate metal chairs that I found particularly enticing.

Suddenly Last Summer is Tennessee Williams’ one-act set in this gloriously elaborate locale in New Orleans. Formerly belonging to the now-deceased Sebastian Venable, this verdant green space and patio is now frequented by his mother Violet (Patti Flaherty). While not exactly the most uplifting of stories, the play finds its action beginning with Violet meeting Dr. Cukorwitz (Matt Walsh) in her attempt to convince him to lobotomize her institutionalized niece Catherine (Noel Jean Huntley) for spreading lies about what ultimately happened to her deceased son.

Sebastian took great pride in his garden, and while Violet, in her old age, can’t live up to his ability to care for every plant, without her son around she has only his garden and poetry to boast about now. She does so in spades. Flaherty dripped Southern charm at Thursday’s opening-night performance, with a rich accent that never wavered. Violet may be frail, but Flaherty’s passion gives the character strength and a bit of a judgmental attitude. With Flaherty’s inflections, it was easy to discern hidden meaning in what she was saying from time to time, and Suddenly Last Summer offers many subtexts throughout, allowing audiences to draw their own conclusions about what’s true.

Matt Walsh and Patti Flaherty in Suddenly Last Summer

Watching Flaherty and Walsh was fascinating, as Walsh played his character rather straightforwardly – which I, for one, appreciated, considering Violet’s intensity would be hard to compete with. It’s interesting that Violet believes Catherine to be crazy when she herself seems lost in grief. It’s also a good thing that the production's set is so visually appealing, because the action in Suddenly Last Summer is fairly stagnant. Adams tries to have her cast in motion as much as possible, but Williams’ script is largely composed of monologues that don’t require excessive movement.

The power Violet has over everyone is nearly unsettling. The housekeeper, Miss Foxhill (Jaqueline Cohoon), is so meek in comparison you’d think Violet walks on water. When Mrs. Holly (Ann Grafft) and George (James Becker) arrive at the house, they’re banished from the garden by Violet so quickly that I wasn’t even able to see Grafft’s face from my vantage point; she never made it far enough past the trellis.

It was interesting to see Catherine arriving at Violet's home with Sister Felicity (Lisa Kahn), an escort from the asylum following close behind. Catherine’s clear strength has been evidently snuffed out during her time at the asylum. (Mental-health treatment in the 1930s couldn’t have been much fun, especially for someone used to affluent European vacations.) Even though Catherine fights back as best she can, she has her own horrors to contend with, having been with Sebastian when he passed. Poor Catherine. Beyond her experiences with the asylum and Violet, her mother and brother are down on their luck and not very kind to her; they simply want her to go along with whatever she’s told so they can get the money Sebastian left them in his will.

Ann Grafft, James Becker, and Noel Jean Huntley in Suddenly Last Summer

When we finally get to hear Catherine’s side of the story, you can begin connecting the dots, and Huntley is just phenomenal as Catherine, bringing a deep range of emotion to her character after the doctor tenderly gives her a “truth serum” to hear her side of the story. Williams’ script is dark, with many layers, and no precise truth verified. Catherine’s monologue descriptions, paired with Adams’ sound design and a darkening of the lights, became so horrific that I found myself closing my eyes. Suddenly Last Summer isn’t precisely creepy, but it is unsettling and will bring you right to the edge of uncomfortable, making it the perfect late-October fare.

Meanwhile, watching the rest of the cast listen to Catherine’s perspective was every bit as engaging as what Huntley disclosed, and observing them form their opinions, each uniquely different, was a highlight. One of the most compelling facets of this production is that there’s enough ambiguity written into Williams' script that every audience member is going to reach their own conclusion on what they believe actually happened.

Admittedly, I was taken aback by the way the show came to an abrupt end and led almost instantaneously to a curtain call. I would have preferred an extra moment to take it all in before being catapulted back to real life. Nevertheless, this material provides a stark juxtaposition of darkness when compared to its utterly lovely set. In Suddenly Last Summer, what you see may not be what you get.


Suddenly Last Summer runs at the Black Box Theatre (1623 Fifth Avenue, Moline IL) through October 28, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)284-2350 and visiting TheBalckBoxTheatre.com.

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