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Trinity Rep captures beauty of Williams's savage 'Summer'

PROVIDENCE -- Tennessee Williams tells the darkest of human tales with the loveliest of words. It's a juxtaposition that is intentionally unsettling but can generate a powerful theatrical experience. The Trinity Repertory Company's production of ''Suddenly Last Summer" does just that.

With sophisticated scenery, crisp costumes, and a charismatic cast deploying lilting Southern accents, the one-act is a visual and aural feast. Amid all the beauty, director Mark Sutch never wavers from presenting Williams's savage drama that pits truth against the preservation of sanity.

Set in 1936 New Orleans, ''Suddenly Last Summer" details a wealthy Southern matriarch's struggle to maintain her ideal image of her never-married poet son, Sebastian. After his death, Mrs. Venable (Barbara Meek) calls upon the services of Dr. Cukrowicz (Fred Sullivan Jr.) to examine her niece, Catharine (Miriam Silverman), whose recounting of Sebastian's demise is so extraordinary and disturbing that Mrs. Venable believes Catharine should undergo radical treatment in order to quiet her.

Sutch's direction of the seven-person cast is compelling because it is so clear. The audience never sees Sebastian, but the actors describe him and respond to his memory in such palpable ways that he feels present. The actors create a collective rhythm; no word that Williams wrote -- in what is considered one of his more autobiographical plays -- is wasted or out of place.

Meek is outstanding as Mrs. Venable, genteel one moment and jarring the next. Sullivan is cool and even, revealing his character's conflicted responses as he must choose between financial support of his medical procedures and his oath to first do no harm to patients. Silverman's performance improves as she delves deeper into Catharine's memories; the more tormented the moment, the better her delivery.

Cynthia Strickland and Matt Robinson play Catharine's mother, Mrs. Holly, and brother, George. Strickland captures the tragic dependence that Mrs. Holly has on Mrs. Venable's wealth, while Robinson portrays dependence of a more ambitious variety. Robin Galloway infuses the minor character of Miss Foxhill, personal aide to Mrs. Venable, with a lively studiousness. Janice Duclos is merely neutral as Sister Felicity, hospital escort to Catharine.

The production's design echoes the playwright's notion of beauty amid darkness. Fritz Szabo's set is a lush, curving garden and patio at the Venable home, with wide stairs leading to the house. Vines wrap around the stone columns, leaving unanswered the question of whether they are adorning or choking. Brian J. Lilienthal makes bold statements with his lighting, which blends with the buttery palette of William Lane's costumes and chills the stage during grimmer moments.

It's been 14 years since Trinity Rep last produced a Tennessee Williams play. Simultaneously raw and resplendent, ''Suddenly Last Summer" was worth the wait.

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