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Port City Playhouse Digs Deep into Williams' Garden

Port City Playhouse has combined one of Tennessee Williams’ best known one-act plays with one of his least known to create a fascinating, disturbing and thoroughly engrossing evening of theater. The production continues through this weekend at the Career Center Theater at TC Williams High School.

“Suddenly Last Summer” is the better known of the two, if only because it was made into a movie which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Katherine Hepburn. It was a movie which broke more Hollywood taboos per foot of film than any movie of the 1950s. The play was Williams’ effort to deal with some of the issues in his own life which was plagued by, among other things, anger and remorse over his mother’s decision to allow a lobotomy on his sister who suffered from mental illness. Williams being Williams, the specter of such a medical procedure is only the beginning of the horrors plaguing the minds of the characters as he manages to include issues of homosexuality, miscegenation and cannibalism in his unique mixture.

Director Rosemary Hartman combines this short play with Williams’ “Portrait of a Madonna,” a little known piece that fits perfectly with “Summer.” The “Madonna” in this instance is an aging former Southern Belle with a history of mental instability who, alone in the world and living in a small apartment somewhere “up north” in 1940, suffers hallucinations of break-ins and attacks. Her demands for increased security bring her to the attention of the authorities.

Both plays require the services of strong actresses and Port City found three superb actresses to bring them to life.

ELLEN YOUNG IS THE “MADONNA” in the play which is presented before intermission. Her opening scream from offstage sets the emotional tone for the entire evening. Her progressive disintegration is so compelling that it is hard to look away and, by intermission the audience clearly needs a break to catch its breath.

That break better be well used for, after intermission, Hartman has two actresses who put on a demonstration of emotional overload that is taxing indeed. First, Carla Scopeletis creates a grande-dame of southern hauteur as the mother of a young man who was killed while on vacation from their New Orleans mansion. Scopeletis goes easy on the character in the early parts of the play but only to set up emotionally wrenching reactions to the revelations to come.

Those revelations come from Karen Jadlos Shotts as the old lady’s niece who is being treated for the mental breakdown triggered when she discovered her cousin’s body. As she reveals the horrors that drove her over the edge, her aunt begins to comprehend their immensity, and Scopeletis’s reactions are as heart wrenching as Shotts’ performance is riveting.

There are other actors involved and they all do their jobs well and the work of set designer John Downing is also notable. But it is the trio of Young, Scopeletis and Shotts that make this an evening to be remembered.

“Portrait of a Madonna” and “Suddenly Last Summer” plays Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Career Center Theatre on the campus of T.C. Williams High School, 3330 King St. Tickets are $10. Call 703-838-2880.