The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Barry Pineo, January 18, 2008, Arts

Garden District

Larry L. King Stage at Austin Playhouse, through Feb. 2

Running time: 2 hr., 15 min.

To my knowledge, no play titled Garden District actually exists. Rather, Garden District is the title of this evening of two Tennessee Williams plays, produced by Different Stages and directed by Artistic Director Norman Blumensaadt. In the first and considerably shorter of the two, Something Unspoken, Miss Cornelia Scott, a member of the New Orleans elite, waits to find out if she has been elected, by acclamation, regent of the Confederate Daughters while celebrating her secretary's 15-year employment anniversary. Sharon Elmore plays Scott with an appropriate touch of nose-in-the-air superiority, and she and Sarah Seaton, who plays her secretary, Miss Grace Lancaster, manage to generate more than enough humor, as well as tension concerning the "something unspoken" that exists between them, to hold our interest.

In retrospect, though, Something Unspoken seems merely a pleasant prelude to Suddenly Last Summer, the long one-act that completes our visit to the Garden District. Possibly one of Williams' best if not best-known plays it embodies a healthy dose of the playwright's trademark Southern lyricism and cruelty. In it, yet another of Williams' dominating Southern belles, Mrs. Venable, plans to have her niece Catherine lobotomized in order to keep her from revealing the story of the terrifying demise of Venable's son, Sebastian. Director Blumensaadt gets uniformly excellent performances from his actors, with Jennifer Underwood reveling in both Venable's charm and her vitriol and Kathleen Fletcher playing Catherine as both resigned to and defiant of her fate. The acting excellence extends to the supporting performances, as well, with Elmore (again) as the seemingly hardened yet eminently pliable Sister Felicity and Paula Ruth Gilbert as the obsequious Mrs. Holly, mother to Catherine and George, played by Paul Solieau in a standout performance as slick, scummy, and slimy yet strangely charming.

So outstanding is the overall production that its flaws stand out in sharp relief. Frank Benge's sound design for both plays is intrusive. For the most part, the sounds fade in too quickly, distracting from the spoken words of the play; play too loudly, covering the dialogue; and fade out too quickly, drawing still more attention to themselves. Why Blumensaadt allowed so many ineffective cues to populate the evening is a mystery. In addition, while the first three-quarters of Summer is about as fine a piece of theatre as you'll see in Austin, the last 15 or so minutes, when Catherine reveals Sebastian's horrifying fate, fall flat. Articulating exactly why the end of the play didn't work would perhaps be helpful, but doing so on a single viewing is difficult. Suffice it to say that the opening-night audience was still and attentive throughout but began shifting in their seats, looking around, and fanning themselves with programs during Catherine's extended monologue. Given the nature of what she reveals, this most certainly should not have been the case.

None of these flaws, though, should prevent you from attending, as it's rare to find a production of any play, much less one of Tennessee Williams' difficult if artful renderings of 20th century Southern realism, performed in such a riveting and entertaining fashion.

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