Since 1989, Actors Theatre of San Francisco has devoted itself to performing works that focus on the human condition, often American classics by the likes of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller.
Among the ensemble’s favorite playwrights is Tennessee Williams. Its current production of “Suddenly Last Summer” demonstrates its affinity for his poetic, symbolic material.
Modern times may have changed perception of some of the 1940-set play’s themes, based on Williams’ life and including homosexuality (his own) and lobotomy (his sister’s) as a mental-health treatment.
Yet, its power remains in the depiction of how conflicted main characters Mrs. Venable (Joyce Henderson in a role based on Williams’ mother) and her niece Catherine (Larissa Archer) cannot come to terms with the death of Venable’s son Sebastian (the unseen character reflecting the playwright himself), which occurred the summer before.
Short on action, the talky drama, featuring two long monologues in which the characters describe rather than act out the plot, unfolds in the lush garden of Mrs. Venable’s New Orleans home (effective patio-and-greenery set by Biz Duncan and James Baldock).
Mrs. Venable first greets Dr. Cukrowitz (Mark Bird) with a few items of business — to donate to the psychiatrist’s research and get him to quiet, via lobotomy, a crazed Catherine, who was with Sebastian when he died. In a nuanced performance steering clear from melodramatic, Henderson reveals how Venable’s love for her writer-son is eclipsed by her own selfishness and denial of his sexuality.
In the second act, Catherine, interviewed by the doctor, tells her version of Sebastian’s unusually gruesome death involving cannibalism. It’s an equally restrained performance by Archer, who, as a person under the influence of truth serum administered by the doctor, undergoes a transformation from waif to person of substance.
Under direction by company founder and artistic director Christian Phillips, Henderson and Archer handle the poetic dialogue with finesse, enlightening not only their characters’ struggles, but showcasing Williams’ vivid mortality tale.
‘Suddenly Last Summer’
Where: Actors Theatre of San Francisco, 855 Bush St. (between Mason and Taylor streets), S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Tickets: $15 to $38
Contact: (415) 345-1287, www.ticketweb.com, www.actorstheatresf.org