CVIndependent

Mon07222019

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

Desperate for an escape from the current chaos swirling around us? I have just the ticket: See Clark Gable Slept Here at Desert Rose Playhouse. This terrific play will transport you into another world … filled with lurid sex, glamour, murder—and lots of laughs.

Michael McKeever’s dark comedy opens with the corpse of a naked man (David Boyd) face-down on the floor in a posh suite at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Hollywood. Estelle, the maid (the fabulous Melanie Blue) is in a state of hysteria, while hotel manager Gage Holland (Winston Gieseke) and Hollywood agent Jarrod “Hilly” Hilliard (Michael Pacas) are trying to discern what actually happened, and what to do about it.

It’s a delicate situation, since the dead man on the floor is apparently a hooker, and the hotel room had been rented to Jarrod’s biggest client, action star Patrick Zane—who is supposedly straight, married and up for a Golden Globe Award that night. The timing could not possibly be worse.

Enter Morgan Wright (the incomparable Yo Younger), a Hollywood “fixer” who has been dragged away from her prime seat at the awards ceremony (and the welcome attention of a flirtatious Jon Hamm) to take care of this PR disaster.

Hilarity—along with a great deal of colorful language—ensues. With no intermission, the 90-minute show moves along at a brisk pace.

The cast is uniformly superb. Blue’s Estelle is a hoot. She describes stumbling upon the body in Spanish, yet her over-the-top gestures make it easy to understand everything she’s saying. She keeps the audience laughing throughout the evening, when she delivers a comic yet pious prayer over the dead man, or sneaks swigs of whiskey while pretending to dust. Her physicality reminds me of a young Carol Burnett.

Winston Gieseke strikes just the right notes as Gage, who is trying hard to maintain the dignity of his position as manager of the hotel. Concerned about the scandal of finding a dead male prostitute in his establishment, he sniffs that “the Chateau Marmont has a rich and illustrious history.” Jarrod shoots back: “which I’m sure is filled with dead prostitutes.”

Michael Pacas’ Jarrod is spot on. He completely captures the shallow, self-important aura of a Hollywood agent: “This is not about a dead hooker—this is about ME!” Later on, he points out: “This is Hollywood; no one wants reality!”

As the hooker (whose real name is Travis), David Boyd convincingly portrays the weariness and angst of a young man feeling old before his time due to his profession, but there were a couple of occasions when he could have used a bit more vocal projection.

But the clear star of this show is Yo Younger as Morgan. From the moment she enters—hair upswept and resplendent in a fire-engine red gown and huge drop-diamond earrings—the stage is hers. Clearly irritated by having to clean up this mess rather than sip champagne and play footsie with Jon Hamm at the Golden Globes, Younger snaps at everyone in her path, dropping the f-bomb frequently. When Jarrod begins to chime in with an unwelcome comment, she fixes him with a steely glare: “Don’t you say it, or I’ll punch you in the throat!”

As the lurid details of the evening are revealed, Morgan must repeatedly check in by phone with her team of “fixers.” Younger’s delivery of a line inquiring about dwarfs on record is priceless. She glides effortlessly from anger to sarcasm, to flirtation and back again. I have reviewed Younger many times, and she’s always good—but this may be one of the best performances she’s ever given in the valley.

Director Jim Strait deserves a great deal of credit here, beginning with the casting. Each actor plays off the other beautifully. He keeps the action moving and the laughs coming. Bravo!

Mention must be made of the gorgeous set. It is lush, opulent and perfect. As usual, the costumes, lighting and sound are excellent.

Run, don’t walk, to see Desert Rose’s production of Clark Gable Slept Here. You will laugh yourself silly as you enjoy an evening of escape from reality. And God knows, we could all use a little of that.

Clark Gable Slept Here is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 28, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32 to $35, and the running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance