Summer and Smoke Cuts Through the Haze
Classic Stage Company and Transport Group join forces for this Tennessee Williams revival.
Desire and resentment are like smoke and fire in the scorching revival of Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke now playing at Classic Stage Company in a joint production with Transport Group. Long dismissed as a lesser Williams drama compared to A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, Summer and Smoke smolders with unsatisfied longing thanks to powerful performances and a handsomely pared-down staging by director Jack Cummings III.
Originally titled Chart of Anatomy and then later revised into a different play called The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Summer and Smoke's fitful history can be partially traced to a lackluster 1948 Broadway debut. That's a shame, since Williams always felt a deep personal association with the protagonist, Alma Winemiller: "It has become a sort of concrete truth that I am Blanche," Williams told author James Grissom, referencing the doomed heroine of Streetcar, "but I am much more like Alma, peeking through actual and metaphysical curtains, spying on the things I want to love and to feel and to have, but afraid to get much farther than the porch."
Yet Alma is no shrinking violet as portrayed by the commanding Marin Ireland. From the way she cuts into her big speeches with slow precision, winding up to a fiery finish, we come to understand this minister's daughter as someone who would make a fine preacher herself, were this not early 20th-century Mississippi. The object of her restrained desire (and somewhat less restrained resentment) is the handsome John Buchanan (Nathan Darrow), son of the town doctor (a cranky Phillip Clark). John seems destined for a life of comfort and respect, despite his best efforts: A regular at the dodgy Moon Lake Casino, John enjoys gambling and sex with the casino owner's daughter, Rosa (a sympathetic Elena Hurst). When John turns his attention to the buttoned-up Alma, she doesn't know whether to respond with surprise, elation, or hostility — so she settles for a very real combination of the three.
Few actors would be able to make that synthesis seem as completely natural as Ireland does. She has an instinctual grasp on this character, who is both highly intelligent yet steadfast in her romantic vision of the world even as it constantly fails to live up to her expectations (Ireland lets the audience know when this happens with her unmistakable facial expressions). Barbara Walsh plays her ice-cream-slurping mother with the noisy discourtesy of an ignored child. Tina Johnson is a hoot as Mrs. Bennett, the consummate Southern busybody who seems to relish bursting Alma's bubble. Not only do these older women seemingly conspire to humiliate Alma, but they offer a terrifying look into her future should she stick around this crummy town. If these were your only two choices, you would self-medicate too.
The little white tablets John offers Alma to calm her nerves should raise a red flag for anyone watching. A young doctor-to-be, John is more valued by this community than future spinster Alma, which perhaps explains why Alma is so straitlaced: She doesn't really have a choice. Darrow plays John with the languid confidence of one who knows he doesn't have to try very hard to be adored. But we are still aware that Alma is special: An average woman would not be able to inspire such white-hot rage in this cucumber of a man.
Cummings stages it all with brutal simplicity. It is telling that both John and Alma's father (a severe T. Ryder Smith) violently wrap their arms around this disobedient woman at different points in the play, forcing her body to bend to their wills in a physical manifestation of the patriarchy.
Such clarity extends to the design: A framed portrait of Alma's favorite angel statue occupies one corner of the bare stage, while the other contains John's anatomical chart: romance and reason, squared off in set designer Dane Laffrey's empty arena. Laffrey caps the central platform with a claustrophobically low ceiling, suggesting just how stifling this place is for a stargazer like Alma. The Mississippi heat seems to rise off the stage under R. Lee Kennedy's warm lighting. Kathryn Rohe's costumes conjure time and place while using color to convey social position: severe black for the minister, white linen for young John, red for Rosa. Wearing the palest pink, Alma seems to want to break out of her station without making the radical choice to do so completely.
A drama of unexpected richness, Summer and Smoke reaches full bloom in this glorious production. When so much of our collective angst is focused on the feelings of male dispossession that are driving violence around the globe, this timely revival reminds us that women have regularly felt disappointment too. Where is our hand-wringing for them?