BLONDS WERE NEXT ON THE MENU

Maybe sixteen when first starting to get into Williams, I can’t remember the first read—probably The Glass Menagerie, the one major work of his I detest—but fondly recall the one with the most impact: Suddenly, Last Summer. Flipped for its theatrical flash and absolute incredulity. (Williams claimed there’s “biographical” truth in it; given his sister’s lobotomy and his own penchant for sexual cruising, he’s right.) So taken that, when named a director for the annual student-produced one-act festival, I selected it. At first I faked a lack of understanding as to why I had to keep re-submitting my version to the English department head. Dialogue like Catherine’s “blonds were next on the menu” and “I was procuring for him” had to be excised. References about lobotomies, Sebastian’s beach activities and cannibalism had to be toned down. It seemed that every day brought new objections about the script I was already in rehearsal with. Agreeing to the cuts, I had every intention of defying the censorship by reinstating key lines for the actual performance. It didn’t help that the school paper published a quote from me: “This one is going to be a bombshell!” and it didn’t take long to hear that the department head wasn’t the only terrified adult—the school board decided to unceremoniously cancel the annual event. Looking back, with a huge smile, it’s clear the production would never have had an opening night; the school board’s cancellation, however, was really more an act of retaliation against a highly nonconformist Lithuanian speech-drama teacher, Nijole Martinaitis, who, just a few months before, directed a controversial student version of Williams’ only verse play The Purification. Equally contentious because it dealt with brother-sister incest, this play entered state competitions and knocked the socks off just about every audience that saw it. Despite jitters over theme, audiences applauded how she trimmed and made clear the verse, whipped her student actors into shape, created a Mexican ambiance complete with Greek chorus. So inspired were the students that they created an original guitar-based score and innovative choreography. Time has not dimmed my appreciation—it was very powerful stuff. (The lead actor Patrick Drummond has gone on to become one of Hollywood’s most proficient sound effects editors. He’s done, to name only a few, Body Heat, The Big Chill, Silverado, Broadcast News, Children of a Lesser God, Boyz N the Hood, As Good As It Gets, Father of the Bride I and II, Lassie and, his most acclaimed work, Dick Tracy.) The school board, though, was far less appreciative of all the efforts: it pushed for Nijole’s resignation a year later. Fed up with whitewash education, she went to Mexico to study anthropology. But what she bequeathed to students who have never forgotten her is the thrilling appreciation that when all the elements of Williams’ plays click, we cheer, “This is theatre!” We cheer the movie version of Suddenly, Last Summer for less meritorious reasons: Looking decidedly fleshy in white bathing suit, Elizabeth Taylor is altogether too sane to be used as bait to lure in Sebastian’s tricks but to her credit as an actress she’s unembarrassed about it and has some fun putting out a forbidden cigarette on a nun’s palm—“You said give it to you, so I gave it to you”—and gets some laughs with a few of the dialogue punches she shares with on-screen brother Gary Raymond who’s very entertaining; walking club-footedly and with eye brows like awnings, Monty Clift is stricken with a bad case of drug-induced frights and he’s probably never looked so badly suited up; Mercedes McCambridge pumps to comic perfection the author’s shamelessness, especially the line, “Oh! Don’t tell about that!”; Oliver Messel’s set designs for Mrs.Venable’s Victorian Gothic house and the Venus flytrap garden enhance the hyperbolic looniness; and Katharine Hepburn’s “style” hits its apex here, playing the ultimate she-monster (inspired by Williams’ mother) with imperial ticks the likes of which have to be seen to be disbelieved. Her horror show is compulsively watchable, and such words as “dementia praecox” and “deb ree” get supremely inflected. I almost wrote “inflicted.” Well, that too.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 1991 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.