Keegan Theatre is back home in Arlington, at least for now.
After abandoning the decrepit Clark Street Playhouse a few seasons back, the troupe has performed in several venues here and in the District. Now the troupe is at the Gunston Arts Center's Theater II for a production of two one-act plays by Tennessee Williams. But Keegan also is holding on to the Church Street Theater in the District, where it is finishing up its critically acclaimed and extended run of Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire" this weekend. So you can see Keegan doing Williams here or downtown. It would be a tough choice, although theatergoers probably have seen "Streetcar" many times and may never have seen the one-act plays "Portrait of a Madonna" and "Suddenly Last Summer."
"Portrait of a Madonna" is a short study of a woman losing her grip on reality. It notably features what seems to be an early version of "Streetcar's" Blanche DuBois, one of the most famous characters in American theater.
"Suddenly Last Summer" almost is a full-length play. It is a dark tale of inconvenient truths and corrupt power. Both plays feature Williams's trademark themes of dysfunctional families, questionable sexuality, fading Southern belles and the ugly truths that lie just behind society's facades. While not quite up to the standard set when Port City Playhouse paired these two plays several seasons back, this is an absorbing evening of theater.
Director Leslie A. Kobylinski has the same actor -- Sheri S. Herren -- playing the lead role in both plays, even though one of the roles is a woman much older than the performer. Herren capably transforms herself from a dazed and delusional woman approaching middle age in "Madonna" into a steely, cold and ruthless dowager who will go to extreme lengths to maintain appearances in "Summer."
In "Portrait of a Madonna," Lucretia Collins is an unmarried Southern woman who has ended up alone in an unkempt apartment up North, far from her genteel upbringing. She is sexually frustrated and neurotic, becoming increasingly delusional as she quietly fades out of a life that holds no happiness. A caring building manager, gently played by Timothy Hayes Lynch, and a cruel elevator operator, overplayed by Scott Graham, wait with her for a doctor to arrive to take her away.
Herren eschews histrionics, using a vacant gaze and languid movement to show the woman's disconnection from the real world. While this works, Herren's performance could be more vivid, with a calibrated descent into madness, rather than presenting Lucretia in a static state.
"Suddenly Last Summer" takes us to New Orleans in the 1930s and the garden of Violet Venable's mansion. Venable is a wealthy, aging tyrant who wants her troubled, institutionalized niece, Catherine, to be lobotomized. Venable is protecting the memory of her dead son, Sebastian, a dashing bachelor she believed was pure and chaste but who in reality was an active homosexual. Catherine was with him when he died, and the old woman wants to stop the girl from talking about the gruesome circumstances of Sebastian's death.
Williams is at his most self-indulgent here, weaving into the story hints of incest, homosexuality, abuse of money and power, and even cannibalism. It can be melodramatic; in fact, it cries out to be melodramatic, but Kobylinski keeps it dialed back. That makes it more realistic but somehow a bit less fun. The duel of wits between Marybeth Fritzky as the niece and Herren as Violet has some rich moments, mostly as Fritzky's brittle Catherine starts to crumble every time she ventures near the truth of Sebastian's death, leading to a gut-wrenching monologue that shatters the old woman's world. It is dark but compelling must-see Williams.
"Portrait of a Madonna" and "Suddenly Last Summer," performed by Keegan Theatre, continue through Dec. 17 at Gunston Arts Center's Theater II, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Showtime is 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays. For tickets and information, call 703-527-6000 or visit www.keegantheatre.com.