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Summer and Smoke

Amanda Plummer's miscasting practically sinks Michael Wilson's otherwise beautiful production of Tennessee Williams' 1948 play. logo
Amanda Plummer and Marc Kudisch
in Summer and Smoke
(© T. Charles Erickson)
As Tennessee Williams characters go, Alma Winemuller, the protagonist of Summer and Smoke, is rather larval. With her airs and aspirations, this high-minded, sexually repressed minister's daughter who suffers from a killer crush on John Buchanan, Jr., the bad-boy doctor-in-training next-door, could go in just about any direction. Will she crack up like Blanche DuBois, soldier on like Amanda Wingfield, or turn saint-at-large like Hannah Jelkes?

The answer doesn't much matter, because Alma -- "Spanish for soul," Williams takes pains to remind us -- is not a fully realized character. She's more of a maquette for the playwright's enduring, evolving dialectic of gentility-versus-carnality, an issue that he thrashed out much more vividly in other works. Williams himself considered Alma "a graceful cripple." Had Hartford Stage not been casting about for material toward the end of its 10-year Williams marathon instigated by artistic director Michael Wilson, who helms this show, and had the terribly miscast star Amanda Plummer not pushed for this particular selection, we might have been treated to a stronger contender from the canon.

That's a pity, because the play is so beautifully mounted in this co-production with New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. Tony Straiges' minimalist yet evocative sets and David C. Woolard's period costumes perfectly capture the pleasures to be found in a rural Southern town in 1916. But the one element of the show that consistently torpedoes any illusion of realism is the leading lady's age. At 49, Plummer is simply too old to be playing a prim young hysteric who's anxious about the prospect of impending spinsterhood. (The actress is nearly twice the age of Alma's original portrayer, Margaret Phillips, and Geraldine Page, who played the role in Jose Quintero's stunning 1952 Off-Broadway revival). So all of Alma's tergiversations --e.g., should she cast caution to the winds and give herself before her sell-by date? -- read like yesterday's news.

Moreover, we have Plummer's Alma mooning about and trying to compete, at a full generation's remove, with torrid Rosa Gonzalez and bubbly Nellie Ewell, respectively played by the age-appropriate Stephanie Beatriz and Marta Reiman. (Both are excellent in their small roles.) There's little contest and, thus, little drama. If we are to feel for Alma, we have to believe she has a shot at fulfilling her heart's desire; it should hurt to see her still-youthful dreams crushed. Worse still, Plummer doesn't make up in panache or presence for the glaring disparity; she occupies rather than inhabits this role. Her principal trick -- and it's clearly a trick -- is to let Alma's voice descend into a lower register as she lets up on the character's fluty laughter and air-gulping and starts to come down to earth. The effect, applied at seemingly random moments, is straight out of The Exorcist.

Marc Kudisch provides ample nuance as Buchanan. At the cusp of 40, Kudisch is also a bit superannuated for a medical student, but he carries off the masquerade. All of the character's passions register believably, whether for self-destruction, young ladies (proper and not so), or his socially awkward neighbor. It's hard to tell, as it should be, if John is coming on to Alma for sport or is taking a stab at salvation. What doesn't wash -- and it's Williams' failing, not Kudisch's -- is John's conversion experience toward the end of the play, when he holds up Alma as a paragon of selfless virtue.

That conclusion doesn't cut it, at least not this time out. We've already seen how cruel Alma can be -- especially to her demented mother, whom Jennifer Harmon deliciously plays as an infantilized, compulsive truth-teller -- and how underhanded and manipulative she is in her dealings with John. The text is just ambiguous enough that it's possible to imagine a kinder, gentler Alma who happens to have some minor, humanizing flaws. But in Plummer's dogged, one-track interpretation, too many sympathy points are irretrievably forfeited.

Due to a prior professional commitment, Plummer won't be staying with Summer and Smoke when it moves to the Paper Mill in January. Let's hope that a fresh, new Alma will give us less artifice and more genuine soul.

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