A poignant story about lovers divided by psychological cross-purposes, Summer and Smoke is among Tennessee Williams’ most personally revealing of plays. Admirers of Williams’ works should make a point of seeing the resonant new revival of this 1948 drama, although the minimalist style of its staging may not appeal to everyone’s taste.
Set in a small town in Mississippi around 1915, the story centers on Alma Winemiller, the overly-genteel daughter of a minister and his mildly deranged wife. Ever since girlhood, Alma has harbored a crush on her neighbor John, who has just returned home from medical school this summer in a dissolute state of being. Alma, whose name means “soul,” is obsessed with spiritual and cultural attainments, while John deliberately pursues pleasures of the flesh.
Still, they are mutually attracted. Sparks fly during their summer nights together. But Alma and John remain too far apart otherwise in spirit for a meaningful relationship to catch fire. “I’m more afraid of your soul than you’re afraid of my body,” he tells her. A subsequent tragedy and the passing of time leads to an ironic change in both of their hearts.
“The tables have turned with a vengeance!” Alma says to John in their final scene. “You’ve come around to my old way of thinking and I to yours like two people exchanging a call on each other at the same time, and each one finding the other one gone out, the door locked against him and no one to answer the bell!”
Alma is an especially fascinating character: A prim, refined maiden whose repressed sexual urges induce in her a hyperventilating, nearly hysterical, vivacity of manner. Some viewers may appreciate Alma as a prototypical Blanche DuBois on the verge of breakdown at Belle Reve. Yet she is even more interesting a figure if one recognizes that Alma, with her psychosomatic palpitations and anxieties, might well represent young Tennessee Williams in the years before he accepted his gay sexuality.
Williams’ identification with Alma was so meaningful that in an effort to improve the flawed, if touching, Summer and Smoke, he substantially rewrote it some years later as The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.
Summer and Smoke remains the purer manifestation of the playwright’s impulse and it possesses lyrical passages of tremulous loveliness in the intimate scenes between Alma and John, which comprises the bulk of the two-act drama. The play’s major weakness occurs late in the story when the two characters separately reverse their viewpoints; the transformations are not effectively dramatized. Williams simply expects the audience to make that major leap on their own.
This co-production by Transport Group and Classic Stage Company at the latter’s three-quarter thrust theater space expects the audience to abide by abstract visuals. Designer Dane Laffrey’s setting, which sandwiches the action between a white deck and a relatively low white ceiling, suggests Alma’s chaste, confined horizons as a clergyman’s proper daughter. Formal dining room chairs are rearranged for interiors. A stone angel in the town park, symbolic of Alma’s spiritual aspirations and rigidity, is represented by a gilt-framed sepia photograph mounted on an easel. The actors mime their use of tableware and other props. For the most part, the production’s dozen actors wear their same 1910s clothes in every scene.
Such minimalism usually is characteristic of works staged by John Doyle, the CSC artistic director, and some, but not all, of the productions directed by Jack Cummings III, Transport Group artistic director, who gracefully stages this complex play. A poetic work, Summer and Smoke is scarcely realistic and employing a selective visual stylization suits its heightened quality. Accented by R. Lee Kennedy’s at times incarnadine lighting, the setting permits fluent transitions between the scenes.
What enriches the drama and contributes significantly to this production is an original score composed by Michael John LaChiusa: The rhythmic, insinuating music fosters variously yearning, even sensual, moods and through its interwoven use of violin and guitar suggests the differing natures of Alma and John.
Smoldering performances by Marin Ireland as Alma and Nathan Darrow as John live up to the play’s title. Dressed by Kathryn Rohe in a filmy, rose-tinted frock, Ireland often speaks Alma’s florid dialogue in a rapid, highly punctuated manner, usually accompanied by nervous, expansive, broken-wristed gestures. Darrow, looking a handsome devil in his white summer suits, portrays John in a contrastingly lower, slower register, both in vocal pitch and in his deliberate body language. Together, they provide a heated sense of intimacy in their closest encounters during which it seems they nearly breathe as one.
Elena Hurst slinks along the perimeters as the Mexican beauty who fatally attracts John. Hannah Elless seems as sweet and fresh as a strawberry soda as a local belle. Tina Johnson gives her busybody matron an amusing air of self-importance. All black lace and black comedy moods, Barbara Walsh depicts Alma’s weird and willful mama with a wicked smile.
The last five Broadway seasons have featured revivals of The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, so it is a treat to see one of Williams’ less frequently produced plays. It is especially rewarding to find Summer and Smoke staged and performed with such a fine sense of atmosphere and intimacy.
Summer and Smoke opened May 3, 2018, at the Classic Stage Company and runs through May 25. Tickets and information: classicstage.org