“Summer and Smoke,” Tennessee Williams’ ripe Southern Gothic tale about a preacher’s daughter and her lifelong longing for the doctor’s son next door, is being given a minimalist co-production by the Classic Stage Company and the Transport Group, which feels neither classic nor transporting.
It seems clear what director Jake Cummings III, Transport’s artistic director, is trying to do (and if it weren’t clear, it would be after reading his note in the program): He wants to stage the play in such a way as to “return the focus back on the acting and writing.” But ironically the staging has the opposite effect.
The writing is vintage if second-tier Williams, and the production has a fine 12-member cast. The clear standout is Marin Ireland (Ironbound, Reasons to be Happy), offering another performance that allows us intimate access to a character’s vulnerability. Here she is Alma Winemiller, who from the age of 10 (as we see in the prologue), has been entranced by her reckless neighbor, John Buchanan (Nathan Darrow.) By the summer of 1916 in the Mississippi town of Glorious Hill, Alma, whose name is Spanish for soul, has become what she sees as an upright and spiritual being, busying herself with parish duties and intellectual teas (an example of which, a spot-on parody, we witness.) But she is also anxious, prone to panic attacks, and repressed; town gossips consider her affected and call her an old maid, though she’s only in her twenties. (I was especially drawn to Tina Johnson as the worst of the gossips, the delightfully blunt, hilarious Mrs. Bassett.) Meanwhile, John has grown up to follow his father in becoming a doctor, albeit reluctantly, but, though he cuts a dashing figure in his spotless white suit, he is also a hedonist – a gambler, a drinker and a womanizer. As he’s done since childhood, John teases, taunts, embarrasses Alma. As she’s done since childhood, she pines for John.
The playwright sets up their differences unsubtly and symbolically – she is of the soul, he of the flesh; she visits the town’s stone fountain, presided over by a winged angel entitled Eternity; he displays an anatomy chart. (The play was originally entitled “Chart of Anatomy.”) When he tries to seduce her, she primly rejects him. But Williams also lets us see that this freighted connection is both important and frustrating to John as well as Alma, and then the playwright does something intriguing: The characters in effect switch personas. As Alma confesses to John: “The girl who said “no,” she doesn’t exist any more, she died last summer — suffocated in smoke from something on fire inside her.“
It’s a heartbreaking speech and Ireland’s delivery of it lets us see that fire, and that smoke, and how she suffers.
The writing and the acting would certainly be more affecting in the CSC/Transport production, however, if it weren’t for the distraction of the staging.
Designer Dane Laffrey’s set looks like something out of a low-budget sci-fi movie about life in a spaceship. It’s a plain white platform on the floor, beneath a similar slab of white, functioning as a low-hanging ceiling. The platform is bare except for two pictures at opposite ends. On one end is a framed photograph on an easel of that stone statue entitled Eternity. On the other end on its own easel is an anatomy chart. The set is otherwise bare except for the six old chairs that the characters bring on the stage to sit in. The only prop that I recall is the gun in Papa’s hands. Everything else, some of which are prominently mentioned – tea sets, handkerchiefs, veils, plumed hat, parasol, stethoscope, water from the fountain – are mimed.
It doesn’t work for me – in part, I think, because the action is therefore removed from the overheated, rococo atmosphere of a small Southern town that helps explain its inhabitants’ behavior. There may be a less intellectual reason as well. For this production, audience members at CSC are seated on three sides of the platform, and proof to me of a hunger for more visual stimulation was how much time I spent looking at the faces of the theatergoers across from me.
“Summer and Smoke” appeared on Broadway in 1948 shortly after “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” but, unlike those massive hits, ran for only three months. It’s true that its 1952 revival at Circle in the Square downtown, starring Geraldine Page, is said to have launched Off-Broadway. (Page also starred in the 1961 movie.) But “Summer and Smoke” has some flaws that are hard to ignore today, including a melodramatic turn in the plot that depends on the racist depiction of a Mexican spitfire, Rosa and, her homicidal casino owner father Papa Gonzales. Williams himself tacitly acknowledged the play’s shortcomings by rewriting it two decades later, and giving it a new title, “Eccentricities of a Nightingale.” Yet, if it’s not one of Williams’ great plays, there are echoes of those plays throughout. Alma Winemiller could almost be the young woman who is forced out of her small town, and becomes Blanche Dubois.
Click on any photograph by Carol Rosegg to see it enlarged.
Summer and Smoke
At Classic Stage Company
Written by Tennessee Williams; Directed by Jack Cummings III
Set design is by Dane Laffrey, costume design by Kathryn Rohe, lighting design by R. Lee Kennedy and sound design by Walter Trarbach. Original music by Michael John LaChiusa.
Cast: Glenna Brucken (Rosemary), Phillip Clark (Dr. Buchanan), Nathan Darrow (John Buchanan), Hannah Elless (Nellie Ewell), Elena Hurst (Rosa Gonzales), Marin Ireland (Alma Winemiller), Tina Johnson (Mrs. Bassett), Gerardo Rodriguez (Papa Gonzales), T. Ryder Smith (Reverend Winemiller), Ryan Spahn (Archie Kramer), Jonathan Spivey (Roger Doremus), and Barbara Walsh (Mrs. Winemiller).
Running time: Two and a half hours including an intermission
Tickets: $70 to $126
Summer and Smoke is scheduled to run through May 25, 2018