Tennessee Williams' plays like A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are known and loved by mainstream audiences for poetic language, languid Southern atmosphere and compelling plots, but his lesser-known works contain some of the playwright's most dark and haunting themes.
Shorter pieces reveal some of his most ambitious artistic material, both in literary merit and in the dramatic challenges they present for actors.
Unfortunately, the combination of emotional heft and nuance required to successfully buoy Williams' shorter works prove largely too much for the less-than-veteran cast of Studio Players' latest production.
The troupe is presenting two of Williams' one-act plays, Something Unspoken and Suddenly, Last Summer, under the single banner of Garden District, a reference to a well-to-do neighborhood in New Orleans that typifies the Southern culture where Williams' penchant for human observation is at its most keen and disturbing.
One might be quick to blame the production's challenges on the forced defection of original director, Deborah Martin, who had to step away from the project because of a health problem, but it isn't so much the direction as a simple lack of experience that keeps the plays from being the powerhouses they ought to be.
Pinch-hitting directors Ross Carter and Scott Turner do an admirable job of tackling Williams' words and themes and steering the actors toward interesting choices.
However, their coaching goes only so far for performers who have largely cut their teeth on comedy.
Libby Adkins and Joanna Jerome succeed at establishing the framework of compelling characters as two Southern women in Something Unspoken, but they fail to convey the full impact of the disturbing psychological implications that Williams embedded in the script.
We are entertained and intrigued by the relationship between the Southern women — Cornelia, a wealthy matriarch, and Grace, her docile secretary. And there are even elegantly wrought moments, such as Cornelia's thwarted monologue about the first day that Grace arrived at the mansion. But the duo fails to hint loudly enough at the sexual tension between them that Williams points to.
Suddenly, Last Summer is even more darkly harrowing than its predecessor, although it comes closer to fully delivering the emotional gut punch that Williams seems to have intended. Seven cast members can more equally distribute the dramatic weight, but it is Edie Maddox and Katee Holznagel who are given the heavy lifting in their roles as Mrs. Venable, another rich Southern matriarch, and Catharine Holly, the older woman's niece and companion to her recently deceased and beloved son, whose secret sexuality is the source of the play's mercilessly rising intrigue.
Like Adkins, Maddox is able to claim the spooky tyranny in her role but fails to consistently deliver that silky Southern veneer of manners and movement that would make her villainy all the more cutting.
It is Holznagel's performance as Mrs. Venable's niece that lifts the production out of a sagging lull and into the realm of intense fascination, which escalates all the way to curtain. Her performance as disturbed but refreshingly honest Catharine injects fresh and captivating energy into the show's most riveting moments. She wields Williams' language and emotional vigor beautifully, particularly in the long, elaborate monologue that is the evening's crescendo.
A valiant effort, Garden District is like a good table wine: drinkable and even satisfying at times. But Williams meant for it to be a complex, well-aged vintage.