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Exploring Tennessee

By Kerianne Tupac

The U-M Department of Theatre & Drama opens the 2011-12 season with a celebration of Tennessee Williams’s 100th birthday with a production of his one-act play Suddenly Last Summer, and a four-day conference examining the work of the prodigious playwright.

One of America’s most controversial and acclaimed dramatists, Williams’s evokes human’s capacity for violence in this harrowing play. Suddenly Last Summer plays October 13 at 7:30 PM, October  14 & 15 at 8 PM and October 16 at 2 PM in the Arthur Miller Theatre in Ann Arbor. U-M Professor of Theatre Philip Kerr directs. The conference, Tennessee Williams @ 100, runs October 12 – 15.

PHOTO LEFT: Kendra Williams as Catharine, Emily Berman as Mrs. Violet Venable, and Dan Rubens as Dr. Sugar.

Thomas Lanier (Tennessee) Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1911. His family moved to St. Louis in 1918, and Tennessee went on to study at the University of Missouri and Washington University before ultimately receiving his degree from the University of Iowa in 1938. He produced a number of plays early on, but found fame in 1944 with The Glass Menagerie.

Over the next 30 years his works, including A Streetcar Named Desire (1947 Pulitzer Prize for drama), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (for which he earned a second Pulitzer Prize in 1955), Orpheus Descending, and Night of the Iguana, found success both on stage and screen. He published his autobiography, Memoirs, in 1955, which detailed his life and discussed his addiction to drugs and alcohol, as well as his homosexuality. Although he continued to write daily, his addictions negatively affected his work in the 1960s and 70s. Tennessee Williams died on February 24, 1983, at the Hotel Elysée in New York City.

Paired with Something Unspoken, Suddenly Last Summer debuted Off-Broadway in 1958 under the collective title Garden District. Critics immediately heralded Suddenly for its unique language and theatrical form. The story tells the tale of two women trying to come to terms with the death of a loved one. Once the sole companion of her son Sebastian, Mrs. Violet Venable is devastated by his mysterious death abroad. Sebastian had spurned his mother’s companionship on his last trip, choosing instead to travel with his beautiful cousin Catharine. Since returning to New Orleans, Catharine’s wild accounts about the trip have begun to call into question Sebastian’s immaculate reputation. In part jealous of her dismissal by her son for a younger woman, Violet is ruthlessly determined to protect his memory at any cost. She tries to enlist the aid of Dr. Cukrowicz, a young surgeon specializing in the new field of lobotomy, promising generous funding for his research provided he perform one on Catharine. As the Doctor and Violet hear Catharine’s version of events, a mother’s illusions clashes with a grisly tale of sex and exploitation that just may be closer to the truth.

Joining Kerr on the creative team is Assistant Professor Sarah-Jane Gwillim as assistant director. Scenic design is by Gary Decker (Much Ado About Nothing) with costume design by Christianne Myers (Dancing Americas, The Elixir of Love) both Assistant Professors in the Department of Theatre & Drama. Undergraduate students in the Department of Theatre & Drama, Rachael D. Albert, a senior making her mainstage debut as lighting designer and sound designer Colin Fulton (The Crucible), a junior in the BFA Inter Arts program, complete the design team.

Following the performances of Suddenly Last Summer on Thursday, October 13 there will be Curtain Calls, post-performance discussions moderated by Kerr and featuring members of the cast and creative team. Sponsored by the Friends of Theatre & Drama, the Curtain Calls discussions are free and open to all.


In conjunction with the production of Suddenly Last Summer, the Department of Theatre & Drama presents a four-day conference entitled Tennessee Williams @ 100 to celebrate the playwright. Scholars, playwrights and theatre artists will gather to share their perspectives on Tennessee Williams’ impact on American theatre, the American consciousness, and his enduring influence on writers throughout the last century and continuing into the present one. All conference events are free (with the exception of the performances of Suddenly Last Summer) and open to the public. More details along with directions to the various venues for the conference may be found online at

The keynote speaker for the conference is award-winning playwright Christopher Durang, who will reflect on his connections to Tennessee Williams’ work and share hilarious excerpts from his parody Desire, Desire, Desire. Durang’s plays on and off-Broadway include A History of the American Film (Tony nomination), Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You (Obie award), Beyond Therapy, Baby with the Bathwater, The Marriage of Bette and Boo (Obie award, Dramatists Guild Hull Warriner Award), Laughing Wild, Betty’s Summer Vacation (Obie award), Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge, and Adrift in Macao (book/lyrics Durang, music by Peter Melnick). His latest play Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love premiered at the Public Theater in 2009. Durang has acted in movies (Butcher’s Wife, Housesitter, Mr. North, Secret of My Success) and in his own plays. With Marsha Norman, he’s been co-chair of the Playwriting Program at Juilliard since 1994. Durang’s keynote address is at 7:00pm on October 12 in Stamps Auditorium in the Walgreen Drama Center on North Campus.

The conference features four panel discussions featuring noted scholars, directors and artists presenting papers and discussing the genius of Williams’s texts in performance. Related themes such as identity, sexuality, race, religion, age, class, and culture, as they relate to the body of Williams’ work, will also be explored. Panel moderators include Kenneth T. Rowe Professor of Dramatic Literature, and Professor of Theatre Enoch Brater, Professor of Theatre Leigh Woods, Professor of Theatre E.J. Westlake, and the director of Suddenly

Last Summer and Claribel Baird Halstead Professor of Theatre Philip Kerr. All panel discussions are at the Arthur Miller Theatre in the Walgreen Drama Center on North Campus.

In addition to the keynote address and panels, the Residential College of the University of Michigan presents productions of three of William’s’ works; The Parade, Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen and Something Cloudy, Something Clear at the Keene Theatre on Central Campus. Basement Arts, the student led producing group of the Department of Theatre and Drama, presents a production of Durang’s For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls in Studio One at the Walgreen Drama Center. Finally, there will be a screening of the film version of Suddenly Last Summer (starring Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and Montgomery Clift), with a talk by Professor Emeritus of Speech and Communications Frank Beaver at Stamps Auditorium.

Ticket prices for Suddenly Last Summer are $26 general admission with students only $10 with ID. Tickets are available in person at the League Ticket Office, located within the Michigan League. The Ticket Office is open from 9am-5pm, Monday through Friday and 10am-1pm on Saturday. Order by phone at (734) 764-2538. All major credit cards are accepted.
Tickets may also be ordered online at The Arthur Miller Theatre, located within the Walgreen Drama Center at 1226 Murfin Ave. on the UM North Campus, is wheelchair accessible and equipped with an infrared listening system for hearing enhancement.

Kerianne Tupac is Marketing and Communications Director and Adjunct Lecturer in University Productions.