Sebastian Venable may be the original 40-year-old virgin, long before Steve Carell in a certain film comedy.
The tragic Sebastian – the oft-discussed but never-seen subject in Tennessee Williams’s hothouse Gothic drama, “Suddenly Last Summer” – is indeed that chaste, complex, doomed son around whom other characters orbit in an excellent new production at Black Box Theatre in downtown Moline.
Set in the late 1930s, the 1957 one-act, 80-minute play tells the story of Sebastian, a wealthy and secretive poet who died under mysterious circumstances while vacationing in Europe with his cousin, Catharine Holly.
Catharine – who is being treated at an insane asylum run by nuns – has claimed that Sebastian was killed by a mob of young men who he had been using as sexual prey, and that they ate his flesh in a cannibalistic frenzy.
Sebastian’s mother, Violet Venable, refuses to believe this version of events and tries to silence Catharine by having her lobotomized.
She invites a staid, solid psychiatrist, Dr. Cukrowicz (he tells her to call him “Dr. Sugar”), to her mansion and offers to fund his research if he agrees to perform the operation on Catharine. Dr. Cukrowicz, however, is more interested in hearing Catharine’s tale and decides to give her a truth serum to make her talk.
The harrowing story is considered one of the greatest American plays of the modernist period, and in the first-class hands of the Black Box cast and crew, it is thrilling, mesmerizing, disturbing, and unforgettable.
A film version was released by Columbia Pictures, in 1959, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and Montgomery Clift; it was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz from a screenplay by Gore Vidal and Williams.
The intimate Moline version has another pitch-perfect set designed by director (and BBT co-owner) Lora Adams and built by her amazing husband Michael Kopriva, creating a lush New Orleans home garden, complete with bountiful greenery and even a small working fountain. One character calls it “a well-groomed jungle.”
“Suddenly Last Summer” is a stunning tour de force for the two female leads, each outstanding here. QC theater veteran Patti Flaherty (whose bio says she’s been involved “in area theater since God was a pup”) is the grand, widowed Southern belle, Violet, and Sebastain’s mother.
She dominates the first half of the play, as she initially tells her son’s story and denunciation of Catharine to Matt Walsh, who is terrific as the respected psychiatrist, who simply wants to discover the truth.
Flaherty effortlessly unspools Violet’s genteel charms and she reveals the delicacy and uniqueness of her special relationship with Sebastian, in dreamlike, idyllic terms. As a poet, his life was his work and vice versa, and he produced one poem every summer during their travels, and the other nine months of the year were spent in preparation, like a pregnancy, the playwright observed.
As Flaherty is also eminently capable, you can tell Violet has a domineering, intimidating personality and iron will, and she lets her bitterness and anger flare at key volcanic points in the story.
The second half of “Suddenly” is laser focused on Noel Jean Huntley, a multi-talented singer and actress (and 2022 Augustana graduate) who gives an extraordinary, laser-focused performance as the equally tragic Catharine.
She is deeply intense and you can’t take your eyes off her, even when Huntley doesn’t speak. One of the great hallmarks of an actor is their facial expressions and reactions, and Huntley’s often haunted, thousand-yard stare is profoundly affecting, even when she doesn’t say a word (echoing one of the play’s lines, “The shadows were almost as luminous as the light”).
Catharine loved Sebastian and her life obviously was shattered by his shocking death. The heart-wrenching play in a sense is a whodunit that never gets a Poirot-like neatly wrapped conclusion.
While Violet’s mission is to defend her son’s reputation, she says Catharine’s hatchet-like tongue is out to tear it to shreds. The two sparring women each have their own motives for supporting their account of Sebastian: Violet wants to protect her son and ruin his attackers (including Catharine’s brother and mother, all family of Violet’s dead husband), and Catharine wants to gain partial control over Sebastian’s estate, getting the money she and her brother were promised in his will.
Walsh is like the ultimate diplomat, dealing with the warring parties with tact and respect. Ann Keeney Grafft and James Becker strongly play the sympathetic mother and brother, who plead with Catharine not to tell the sordid, frightening story of Sebastian’s death.
The long, emotional monologue Huntley delivers, doing just that, is a bewitching, horrifying, heartbreaking adventure in itself. It literally is breathtaking.
Contributing to the engrossing magic of this “Suddenly Last Summer” is the characteristically cool light design by Augustana senior (and BBT veteran) Roger Pavey, Jr. He also programmed the sensitive soundtrack, which includes poignant piano music and chirping birds.
The play continues this Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 26-28 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $16, available HERE.