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Summer and Smoke

Theatre Review by David Hurst - May 3, 2018

Nathan Darrow and Marin Ireland
Photo by Carol Rosegg

"The tables have turned with a vengeance," says Alma Winemiller in the penultimate scene of Summer and Smoke, Tennessee Williams' gothic potboiler now on view at Classic Stage Company courtesy of the Transport Group and their artistic director, Jack Cummings III. In an emotionally fraught drama about loneliness, suppressed desire and the eternal quest for love in the face of an overwhelming need for sex, that line, an almost perfect summation of the play, is delivered with the realization of a lifetime by the superb Marin Ireland in a performance of heartbreaking intensity and meticulous desperation. Ireland is joined by Nathan Darrow who portrays the object of Alma's affections, John Buchanan, and he, too, is sensational in an almost impossible role. It's a shame Cumming's oddly directly production isn't as electrifying as its stars and their game supporting cast in this rarity from one of America's greatest playwrights.

In his stark concept for this revival, despite lovely period costumes (by Kathryn Rohe), Cumming eschews the traditional elements of any Summer and Smoke production including an expanse of sky and a large statue of an angel (named Eternity), with "wings lifted, and her hands held together to form a cup from which water flows, a public drinking fountain." Taking the place of an actual statue and fountain is a framed picture of an angel which sits on an easel in the center of the stage on its farthest upstage side. The set (Dane Laffrey) consists of two, white rectangular cubes: one positioned on the floor which serves as the stage and one floating aloft in the air, serving as a ceiling of sorts, though the atmosphere created is one of claustrophobia and self-containment. A minimum of furniture is used, and, in a disastrous decision, no props are utilized by the cast; everything is pantomimed—badly, I may add. The only exception to this is an internal anatomy chart of the human body which figures prominently in John's medical office. Like the picture of the angel, it sits on an easel positioned in the downstage left corner at the front of the stage.

Set at the turn of the 20th century through 1916 in Mississippi, Summer and Smoke opens with a prologue when Alma and John are ten years old. Cumming opts to have Ireland and Darrow play their childhood selves instead of employing child actors. They acquit themselves well but the scene, and its effect on the rest of the play, are diminished by not actually seeing the couple as childhood friends. It's surprisingly that, in a city like New York where excellent child actors are plentiful, Cumming opted for this choice. It may have been cheaper, but it's less effective. The action then moves forward to 1916 where Alma is a high-strung, unmarried daughter of the local minister (T. Ryder Smith) and his emotionally unstable wife (Barbara Walsh) who acts out in public and says inappropriate things as the result of a mental breakdown many years previous. Alma's had to serve as in her mother's role growing up and the burden has added to her own flightiness and resentment. Walsh overplays Alma's mother, registering as more calculating than feeble-minded, but it's still a credible performance.

John is home for the summer, having completed his training to be a medical doctor like his father, John Sr. (Philip Clark), instead of a biological researcher which he would have preferred. He and Alma have had a flirtatious relationship for many years but it's clear John now wants a physical relationship. Alma, however, insists on remaining chaste because of her position in her father's house. Her unbridled longing for John remains unspoken but it torments her as does his need for intimacy. To that end, he takes up with Rosa Gonzalez (Elena Hurst) a carnal hussy whose father (Gerardo Rodriguez) owns the riverboat casino where gambling and lustful inclinations are indulged. The town's gossips wag their tongues, including one of Alma's voice students, the beautiful Nellie Ewell (Hannah Elless), but she refuses to believe the talk.

Alma invites John to the rectory for the next meeting of her "intellectual friends" who gather on Wednesdays to talk about new books and read things to each other. John arrives late, but bolts quickly once he's assessed the boredom level provided by the willowy Vernon (Ryan Spahn), the shy Rosemary (Glenna Brucken), potential suitor Roger Doremus (Jonathan Spivey), and the hilarious Mrs. Bassett (Tina Johnson, in a pitch-perfect comic turn). Alma rushes after him but it's too late and she berates her friends for not being more sparkling. She turns up late at night at John's office under the guise of wanting to see his father, but John ends up seeing her and sending her home with sleeping tablets and renewed hope for a date with John soon in the future. Her father, however, forbids their association while her unstable mother continues to speak the truth about Alma's obsession with her next-door neighbor. In the second act of the play we watch our star-crossed lovers' philosophies change places as Williams explores the painful realities we face when sexual repression and societies conventions are inflicted on us.

In today's permissive and sexually empowered culture, it's hard (especially for young people) to imagine a time when any mention of sex or sexuality was utterly forbidden. Men and women suffered in silence and, if they didn't, they were ostracized or branded as whores and lechers. The challenge in any contemporary staging of Summer and Smoke is to portray and empathize with John and Alma's desire for physical intimacy in the context of people who were trapped in an age when the quest for a spiritual joining of souls was considered the highest attainment. The physical act of sex itself was seen as something horrible to be endured for the benefit of procreation only, not for bodily enjoyment.

Cumming and the Transport Group are fortunate, indeed, to have actors as ideally suited to their roles as Ireland and Darrow. Possessing matinee-idol looks and the perfect balance of sex appeal and longing, Darrow's performance perfectly walks the line between wantonness and sincerity. And if ever there was the perfect match of an actor with a role it must be Ireland's inhabitation of Alma. For many, the legendary Geraldine Page's performance of Alma, first created in the 1952 revival of Summer and Smoke at Circle in the Square and later captured for posterity in the 1961 film, is definitive. But Ireland triumphs in a notoriously difficult part filled with minefields and contradictions. With her porcelain fragility and luminous eyes, she resembles a young Meryl Streep both in her appearance as well as her performance. Yes, she's that good. But if you're not sitting on the far side of the right section (the play is done on a three-quarter stage) you'll miss some of her most shattering work in Alma's last scene with John when she's embracing him in her final, resigned, goodbye.

In addition to lots of clumsy blocking, it's a shame so many distractions of Cumming's making pull the audience out of the action and away from the story. Why isn't the cast using props? I can forgive the spartan set (though it does nothing to help the story), and all the white lighting, but why have detailed, period costumes with no props. Can you give John a stethoscope and, for goodness sake, let Alma have a pair of gloves? And can Mrs. Winemiller please have a hat with a plume? What does such a decision serve. It's bad enough they're performing in a white cube of sterility and colorlessness, but then you force them to do all this crazy pantomiming. It's a testament to how wonderful the cast is that Summer and Smoke remains as affecting and moving as Williams no doubt hoped it would be. Written in 1947 after The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, but before Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer, Summer and Smoke may not be top-shelf Tennessee Williams but it's still a great play with the power to challenge you to think and feel. And with Marin Ireland's blazing portrayal of its deeply flawed heroine, Alma Winemiller is restored to Williams pantheon of great female characters where she belongs with Amanda Wingfield, Blanche DuBois and Maggie the Cat.

Summer and Smoke
Through May 20
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues
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