Garden District

NCSU University Theatre
Through Nov. 6

It’s not that local audiences haven’t seen Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer before. Peace College’s notable production of this mid-century New Orleans-based one-act also featured regional landmark Lynda Clark as the wealthy and venomous Mrs. Venable, a woman so maniacally devoted to the aestheticand resolutely asexualmemory of her deceased son that she’s willing to see an innocent girl lobotomized to prevent any other truth from getting out.

Most playgoers have probably forgotten that Suddenly, Last Summer was originally the second in an evening of two one-acts called Garden District, which premiered off-Broadway in 1958. In it, Summer was preceded by a brief two-character piece titled Something Unspoken. At the time, Something was largely taken as a filler piece to make the work a full evening; the New York Times review called it a “trifling, inconclusive anecdote … too elusive to leave an impression.”

That’s why thanks are due to University Theatre for resurrecting this rarely staged pair. When Something Unspoken is placed alongside Summer, the context of both works changes.

True, a mix of professionals and students produces mixed resultsno news at University Theatre. But distinguished performances in lead roles fully illuminate two works that were clearly designed originally to depict intractable societal dilemmas facing gay individuals at the time. The courage required to stage these not particularly veiled indictments of gay marginalization in 1958 could have only been equaled by the frustration when much of that message was misinterpreted or ignored.

Under John McIlwee’s direction, when Something Unspoken isn’t preoccupied with the Machiavellian social club machinations of Cornelia, a small-town grand dame (gratifyingly played by Jan Morgan), it’s gradually revealing just how lonely she is in the company of her longtime “secretary,” Grace (Alexandra Hubbell). If Hubbell had more seasoning, more of a chess match would have developed between a woman aching to speak love’s name and one determined that it never be spoken.

It also takes two credible women to anchor Suddenly, Last Summer. Lynda Clark’s reprise here is a finely nuanced portrait of a monster on Jayme Mellema’s Jurassic-tinged set. When student Lauren Caddick filled out the role of inconvenient witness Catherine, we were riveted during her climactic monologue. We learn the moment that the dead son (suggestively named Sebastian) could no longer be the boy whose ultra-rarified aesthetics forbade any physical contact, his days were clearly numbered. Williams’ grotesque depiction of a fatal gay bashing fully earns him here the cautionary honorific a critic once gave him: clearly, a poet of the damned.

It’s too easy to forget much of the last century was a period of intimate, individual holocausts that blighted the lives of hundreds of thousands of gays and lesbians, well before the time of plague. Garden District provides a poignant, pointed reminder of what two parts of the good old days were like and how far we haveand haven’tcome.