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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The title Suddenly Last Summer has to be one of the most unforgettable, ever. Desert Rose Playhouse has revived this “Southern Gothic” one-act drama by Tennessee Williams, which was adapted into the amazing 1959 movie. That film gave me a permanent case of the creeps (and left me forever debating who was prettier: Elizabeth Taylor or Anthony Perkins?).

In fact, the show is actually referred to as a “horror story,” giving credence to my goose bumps. Here, producer Paul Taylor and director Jim Strait emphasize the music in those soft Louisiana accents and the rhythm of the drawling dialogue. “It’s free-verse poetry,” Strait told me, and he’s right.

The open set is a lush garden, in late spring 1936, burgeoning with life. It actually plays a part in the foreboding—using Venus flytraps, those plants which trap and devour insects, as a topic of discussion. Kudos to Allan Jensen for the lush set decoration and the plantation-style costumes.

The plot concerns a young man, Sebastian Venable, who has met a violent and gory demise while in Europe. His mother is an aging Southern belle, Violet Venable, played by Marjory Lewis, a wealthy society lady determined to cover up her spoiled son’s scandalous life and death. She firmly believes her money and her force of personality can wipe out the ghastly story. But her niece Catherine, played by Cat Lyn Day, remembers it clearly, as she was there, on vacation in southern Spain with him, and Violet is frantic to do something about her before she blabs the truth: What Violet really wants is a lobotomy to be performed on Catherine to destroy the part of her brain containing the story of Sebastian’s death. She schemes to bribe anyone standing in her way—relatives and doctors alike.(Interestingly, Strait informed the audience in his pre-show greeting that this topic was heavily on Tennessee Williams’ mind at the time of writing, as he was in deep therapy, and his sister Rose had actually had a lobotomy. Eek.)

The doctor, played by Cody Frank in the perfect seersucker summer suit, is full of Southern gallantry and determined charm. The relatives (who are actually related to Violet only by marriage, not blood, which does mean something in the South), are Catherine’s brother, George, a wannabe frat boy played by Winston Gieseke, and her mother, a wonderful ditz without portfolio, giddily played by Lorraine Williamson. As the poor relations who have caught an addictive whiff of money, they try to hide their greed and their wobbly moral compasses, yet keep their eyes firmly on their ambitious goals.

Rounding out the cast are Leslie Benjamin, playing the harassed maid, a professional worrier and the only one capable of running in that heat and humidity; and Alden West, playing the fragile nun Sister Felicity, an antiquated import from somewhere in the British Isles, who precariously accompanies Catherine from St. Mary’s Hospital, where she is being held prior to her possible surgery.

This is a women’s play: Unlike in the movie, we never meet Sebastian through flashbacks, so the conflict between Violet and Catherine becomes the center of the action. Marjory Lewis beautifully shades her portrayal of a fading but still fluttering Southern lady, hiding both her backbone of steel and her firm belief that her money can buy anyone. Her innocent lavender-dress-and-garden-hat façade belie a grim determination to rule her little world as if it was really important enough to circle the globe. Lewis gives us a powerful first-scene speech that will take your breath away. We gradually realize that she is driven by her strong conviction that reputation and social standing are everything, and that if faced with absent or weak men, she will control anything and everything necessary, from helming a debutante’s ball to a sailboat.

Cat Lyn Day, on the other hand, marvelously captures the opposing sides of the inner conflict Catherine experiences. She vacillates heartbreakingly between her helplessness when faced by older, wealthier or more-powerful people, and her shaky belief in herself. She hesitates to stand up to others—as Louisiana ladies are not supposed to make a fuss by challenging anyone. She wears a smart blue suit, but we see runs in her stockings. Her naturally elegant looks (great cheekbones!) can’t hide her insecurities. And yet she knows her truth, and no amount of medication or bullying will keep her from speaking it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime role, and Day has pulled out all the stops for it. Her masterful monologue will knock you out.

I wish the cast could have been spared the awkwardness of attempting to look like they were smoking, but it’s written right into the script. Sigh … The fabulous lighting by Phil Murphy, of course, makes the mood of this 95-minute (no intermission!) play a memorable experience.

Strait once again offers a definitive example of how to block stage movement, demonstrating his wonderful sense of balance as well as proving how action affects the mood of a show. He has pulled excellent performances out of his stars, and the commitment to the work makes this production shine. Even the descent into the morass is handled with care.

The audience stays firmly hooked as we are reeled in through this story. The feeling that a train wreck is about to happen before our eyes grows slowly and deliberately. We are in the hands of the unforgettable.

Suddenly Last Summer is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 1, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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A wall-to-wall audience surged into the Desert Rose Playhouse for the LGBT theater company’s summer show: David Dillon’s Party. The play was originally created in 1992 in response to the heavy hearts of that time, weighed down by the stigma of being gay, plus the fear and loss created by the AIDS epidemic.

When it opened in Chicago, producers anticipated a run of several weeks—but it ran for two years! Next, it went to New York—specifically, off-Broadway—where it flourished before going worldwide. And now, it’s onstage in Rancho Mirage.

The timing could not be better: Opening night came 12 days after the Orlando shooting. With our hearts still aching and our tears not yet dry after the horrors at Pulse, Party takes us to a carefree evening where seven gay friends congregate. Is there anything more healing than laughter? This show gives us belly laughs, chortles, whoops, cackles, hoo-haws and snickers. The capacity audience roared and applauded freely throughout, then rose to a standing ovation for the artistry of the cast and crew. You must not miss Party … because this is how we all heal.

The one-act, 105-minute play (no intermission) is set in the cramped Manhattan apartment of Kevin. As his guests arrive, the introductions teach us faces and names—which could be daunting if the clever casting didn’t honor the wildly diverse characters with whom we will spend the evening. All are single. Light conversation fills us in regarding professions and some backgrounds. Former relationships are touched upon. (All you really need to remember is that one of them … is a priest!)

The show is produced by Paul Taylor, and Jim Strait directs. If you think blocking seven characters isn’t a task, just watch the movement on this stage. But Strait has also carefully mined each role to bring out the personality differences, and the result is a study in psychology. Steve Fisher masterminds the technical world of sound and the cues of Phil Murphy’s incomparable lighting.

So let’s start the party. Kevin, the host, is a complex role brought to life by actor John Fryer. In his sleeveless shirt, Kevin weaves his story through the evening in scraps. We come to realize that he is still emotionally raw from the end of a very long-term relationship, though he never asks for pity from his friends … or from us.

Boldly dressed in black and red, his talky friend Ray is the priest, played by Kam Sisco. He grabs most of the laughs, including some uproarious ones about church life. Sisco’s bigger-than-life personality is ideal for portraying an older authority figure … but one who lives to let his hair down and “dish.”

Next is the arrival of Phillip, the creation of actor Jason Hull. This unforgettable young man with his lean body and sculptured face looks intense even while at rest. (Great profile!) His stage character seems to blend effortlessly with his real self, and his combination of laid-back and high energy is a fascinating mix.

Brian, played by Allan Jensen, is convincing as a type we know well: the skilled and talented individual whose life is the arts. Jensen romps through his demanding role with obvious pleasure—and what fun it is to see an actor relaxing into his role so completely … even when performing a strip tease.

Strip tease? Did I forget to mention the nudity? Well, take a look at the poster: Yes, these guys all eventually wind up in their pelts. I’ll explain later.

Miguel Arballo plays Peter, a beer-swiller whose personality blends the watchful and thoughtful with a tinge of the dangerous. He appears to be complete and self-satisfied—but then panics at the thought of taking off his clothes in front of a group of men, even if they’re friends.

James is marvelously played by Robbie Wayne. He swaggers in as the butchy, leather-vested, tattoed type. But then he smiles—and he lights up the stage and our hearts. That million-watt mega-grin transforms his handsome face over and over.

Jacob Betts portrays Andy, a youthful and nerdy newcomer whose role contains the greatest arc of all. We watch in astonishment as this young man sheds his shell as he peels off his clothes. As the evening progresses, he becomes another person, in a commanding and impressive performance.

Yes, the cast is filled with accomplished actors, and directed by Jim Strait, each produces a beautifully subtle and shaded portrayal of his character.

Here’s the idea of Party: The boys have gathered to spend an evening in a safe place where they can just be themselves. Someone brings along a game, a version of “Truth or Dare,” here called “Fact, Fiction or Fantasy.” So that’s how the clothes come off, as they win or lose at each turn, while we learn more about each one’s life. We gain insight as they describe an incident in their past or act out a challenge. It builds into an amazing and gleeful final scene which you will love.

You don’t have to be gay to enjoy this show (although it’d help; the script is sprinkled with underground vocabulary and references to preferences). The humor is universal, and that’s the most important takeaway. It’s a simple plot, and the show is devoid of any real action, which makes it perfect for this intimate stage.

It’s the laughter, that wonderful laughter with so many levels, which unites us all in the joy of life and the appreciation of our differences. This is an extraordinary show that offers a most important gift: Help for us all to heal.

Party is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 31, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30-$33, and the show runs one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance