By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Jack Cummings III
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Begun in 1945, and first produced in 1947, Tennessee Williams called “Summer and Smoke” a “drama of sensibility.” Rich in allegory, yet grounded in realism, the play explores the deep conflicts between body and soul and between the sacred and the profane and examines the themes of the marginalized and the results of having a poorly integrated sexuality. Currently running at Classic Stage Company, this revival of “Summer and Smoke” is presented by both Classic Stage Company and the Transport Group and is directed by Transport’s Jack Cummings III.
Throughout the play, lifelong acquaintances John Buchanan (Nathan Darrow) and Alma Winemiller (Marin Ireland) wrestle with their seemingly irreconcilable understandings of the spiritual and corporeal and their struggles with successfully responding to complex emotional influences. These characters, and others, in “Summer and Smoke” collide with those of other Williams’ plays, notably “The Glass Menagerie” and “Streetcar Named Desire.” And the rhetorical devices in one rumble throughout all three, connecting the characters’ intertwined quests for self-discovery, self-awakening, and unconditional love.
Alma and John live next door to one another and explore the play’s themes from their early visits to the fountain in the town’s square to their separation at the play’s end. “Summer and Smoke” follows the antithetical development of Alma and John. Initially, Alma’s deep Protestant spirituality does not allow her to express her affection for John in ways he understands and needs, and John’s corporeal needs do not allow him to love Alma in ways she understands and needs. As the play develops, Alma becomes more “carnal” and John becomes more “spiritual” and at the end of the play – as at the beginning – the two are unable to connect. Their developmental paths never intersect at points of opportunity for a meaningful relationship. In a sense, Alma jumps on the “streetcar named desire” too late and John realizes he has been on that car far too long – the couple never on the same car at the same time.
Under Jack Cummings III’s careful direction, the cast captures the essence of Tennessee Williams’ seminal work in the Classic Stage/Transport production. Each member of the ensemble cast develops her or his character with sensitivity and each delivers an authentic and believable performance. Marin Ireland’s Alma is as frail as she is frightened of her own sexual status. Ms. Ireland allows Alma to develop subtly and surreptitiously in counterpoint to John’s more erratic movement forward. Nathan Darrow’s John is infectious, sensual, and gritty. Mr. Darrow, in a tour de force performance, reveals a John in a lifelong quest for someone to fill his emptiness and his longing.
Dane Laffrey’s set design honors Williams’ hope that “walls are omitted or just barely suggested.” Mr. Laffrey chooses to use a stage that remains bare except for a few chairs, the “fountain,” and the medical chart in John’s “office.” This expanse allows for a emotionally powerful scene that leaves Alma looking very much like Wyeth’s Christina understanding her limitations but attempting to move beyond them. Kathryn Rohe’s costumes and R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting further support the emotional strength of the play.
Both Alma and Blanche lack sensitivity and suffer from psychological frailty. Alma, Blanche, and Laura are both outsiders as well as artists. Like John and his father and Reverend Winemiller (the appropriately laconic T. Ryder Smith), their artistry is not defined by what they create or practice, but by their temperament and taste. In “Summer and Smoke,” Alma’s art is her vocal ability which she sabotages with her attacks of “anxiety.” John’s art, his practice of medicine, is sabotaged by his self-doubt and lack of integration. Reverend Winemiller’s art is his ministry at which he fails miserably through his faithlessness and hypocrisy. For Tennessee Williams, one cannot practice one’s craft without full psychological and spiritual integration. This developmental truth is given a captivating interpretation in this well thought out production.