Review: Old Academy Players presents a spellbinding ‘Suddenly Last Summer’

Brian Jason Kelly as Dr. Cukrowicz and Caitlin Riley as Catharine Holly in OAP’s production of “Suddenly Last Summer.” Photo by Jim Pifer

By Margie Royal

Prior to my March 4 trip to the Old Academy Players, if you would have asked me about a work entitled “Suddenly Last Summer”, what would have come to mind is the hit song by The Motels. I have never seen the classic film which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Katherine Hepburn, and which was based on Tennessee Williams’ 1958 play. Now, after having seen OAP’s powerful production, when I hear the words “Suddenly Last Summer,” Williams’ poetic, mysterious, and unsettling play will come to mind.
I was immediately pulled into the story of Violet’s quest to discover the truth about the circumstances surrounding her son’s death. The obviously wealthy Violet summons Dr. Cukrowicz to her New Orleans mansion. She wants to learn exactly how her son, Sebastian, died during a trip to Europe. The answer to that question is locked in the memory of her young relative, Catherine, who accompanied Sebastian on the fateful trip. Sister Felicity brings Catherine from the mental hospital to Violet’s New Orleans’ mansion for a confrontation in Violet’s garden. Also attending the confrontation are Catherine’s mother, Grace, and Catherine’s brother George.
Violet’s personal assistant, Miss Foxhill, is also part of the action, as it becomes quickly clear that the strong-willed Violet, now needs daily assistance.
When “Suddenly Last Summer” was first produced in 1958, it was part of a double bill. But audiences of today are now accustomed to 90-minute plays performed without an intermission; and find such plays a complete and satisfying theatrical experience. “Suddenly Last Summer,” with its hint of mystery, and its vivid characters, (which were nicely brought to life by the OAP cast under the skillful direction of Rob Rosiello), definitely needs no other work to accompany it.
“Suddenly Last Summer” features long monologues delivered, first by Violet, and then by Catherine, giving the actresses who portray these women a mighty and meaty task to bring these complex characters to life. The OAP ladies are up to the task!
Sandra Hartman as Violet, creates a steely, Southern belle who is fiercely clinging to illusions that are threatening to break down even as her body has begun to suffer signs of age. Caitlin Riley shows us a tormented Catherine, and makes the audience long to know exactly what did happen on that fateful trip to Europe. Susan Triggiani and Lee Stover, as Catherine’s mother and brother, create characters more interested in pleasing Violet and earning monetary rewards for doing so than in Catherine’s welfare. These actors, although quite believable in the greed they reveal, bring a much-needed comic note to Williams’ chilling tale. Emma Shope is appropriately prim and protective as Sister Felicity, as is Dale Mezzacappa as Violet’s assistant Miss Foxhill. Brian Jason Kelly plays the doctor, who is also clearly aware of wealthy Violet’s power and position in New Orleans’ society.
T. Mark Cole’s summer garden courtyard set is lovely. The painted scrim that covers the back wall of the theater is filled with lush color and greenery. The garden set makes the audience in the intimate OAP theatre feel as if they are also sitting in Violet’s garden. The lighting design by Carla Child and Nancy Frick is warm, and appropriately at times hotly intense. Nancy Ridgeway and Helga Krauss’ assistance in costuming adds to the production. Violet is dressed as a woman of wealth and good taste, and Catherine’s vivid red pantsuit makes the audience unsure at first as to how to perceive her character.
Take a trip out to OAP and see their haunting production of “Suddenly Last Summer”. OAP is the theatre where Grace Kelly and Robert Prosky began their acting careers. If you haven’t yet been to this charming and historic little theatre, be sure and take a trip upstairs prior to the performance. You’ll see framed tributes to Grace Kelly and Robert Prosky, along with images of other shows presented during OAP’s 95-year history.
If You Go: Old Academy Players is at 3544 Indian Queen Lane in East Falls (Philadelphia), the urban village on the Schuylkill River. Constructed in 1819, the Old Academy building has been the OAP home since 1932. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm.  Tickets are $15. with discounts for groups of 15 or more.  Parking for all performances is free.  For information and reservations, call 215-843-1109 or visit www.oldacademyplayers.org.