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A CurtainUp Review
Summer And Smoke
By Elyse Sommer
It began in 1941 as "Bobo", an unpublished short story about Alma (a name meaning soul) who rebels against her Puritan father, becomes a prostitute and gives birth to a magical child who brings her gold and jewels. He rewrote it as another Alma story in 1946, this one titled "Yellow Bird." Alma is again the repressed daughter of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, in this case she begins drinking, smoking and engaging in prostitution after a yellow bird flies into the window of her parish. This in turn led to a play about two sisters in New Orleans, originally called The Poker Night which, of course, became A Streetcar Named Desiree in 1947.
Summer and Smoke was never considered to be on a par with The Glass Menagerie (1944) and Streetcar. . . . Williams himself wasn't satisfied with the way he told the story of the doomed attraction between the sexually repressed spinster Alma Winemiller and the sexy doctor next door to her father's rectory. And so he did an extensive rewrite in 1951 and renamed it Eccentricities of a Nightingale. It became Williams's preferred version of the unconsummated love affair, that ended with Dr. John finding his soul and the frustrated Alma's heartbreaking surrender to the call of the flesh.
The revision, like its early version, never achieved top-of-the-Williams canon status. My colleague Simon Saltzman and I did get to see and review a beautiful production by T.A.C.T., The Actors Company Theater (Sad to say they stopped producing plays this year).
Much as I liked that T.A.C.T. production, Summer and Smoke has somehow become more popular and respected. And it is indeed also worth seeing, whether again or for the first time. The two productions we caught at Curtainup were both excellent, one directed by Michael Wilson in Connecticut and New Jersy and one in London. I therefore looked forward eagerly to the Transport Group's staging at Classic Stage, especially since everything about it looked promising.
I've admired the work of Transport Group's artistic director Jack Cummings III for years. His productions of John LaChiusa's First Lady Suite was exquisite. LaChiusa's original musical, Queen of the Mist, worked like a charm with only minimal scenery. The use of LaChiusa's music enhanced the Transport Group's revivals of William Inge's plays, so I was happy to see my advance press information list him as contributing original music at the Classic Stage.
The performances at CSC also seemed to be in good hands. Marin Ireland has the acting chops to be riveting Alma. Nathan Darrow has the looks and experience (he's played Shakespeare as well as O'Neill characters) to make a fine Doctor John. And with T. Ryder Smith to play Alma's controlling preacher dad and Barbara Walsh as her embarrassingly nutty mother, the ensemble too seemed solidly cast.
Actually, regular theater goers won't know anything about who's doing what, since the Classic Stage has initiated an annoying custom of not handing out programs until after the show. This practice makes sense if it would be a spoiler, but that's certainly not the case here. Given that for many years one of the pleasures of seeing a show at CSC was that they always provided especially interesting programs and enrichment notes. Unfortunately, the lack of pre-show programs, with or without enrichment notes, proved to be a minor disappointment, once the show began.
Ireland is indeed a fine actress, and everyone else on stage did their best, but this super-spare, impressionistic staging somehow lacks energy and clarity. This is a play imbued with emotional richness and lyricism, but it's tapped into only occasionally here.
This is a sprawling play and the playwright's own stage directions called for simplicity. But minimalism can work effectively, but it can distract as is the case here by keeping the audience so focused on trying to figure out what's happening and where we are in Glorious Hill, Mississippi. Consequently this sizzling battle between the soul for which Alma is named, and the flesh just doesn't engage us. Even LaChiusa's incidental music echoes the excessively bare of mood setting platform stage that has become something of a trademark of CSC productions under John Doyle's leadership.
To repeat, Summer and Smoke, despite not being Tennessee Williams's best drama, has much in common with his seminal works, populated as it is with characters simmering with frustrated love and navigating the rocky path between human desire and a restrictive social environment. This social milieu is colorfully underscored by ensemble characters like the gossipy Mrs. Bassett (an amusing Tina Johnson) and Alma's boring beau Roger Doremus (Jonathan Spivey). Both Alma and John's need to rebel is underscored by brief scenes with her over-protective, overly moralistic father and mentally frail mother (Barbara Walsh and T. Ryder Smith) and John's judgmental father (Philip Clark).
While Williams replaced the subplot involving the seductive Mexican senorita Rosa Gonzalez and her pistol-packing father in Eccentricities for a Nightingale, the melodrama Rosa and her father (Elena Hurst and Gerardo Rodriguez) bring to Summer and Smoke serves s a pick-me-up in this sluggish production.
Even in a disappointing production like this, Williams's language still gives Ireland's Alma an opportunity to break our hearts, memorably so in her final plea to John: "I've lived next door to you all the days of my life, a weak and divided person who stood in adoring awe of your singleness, of your strength. And that is my story! Now I wish you would tell me —why didn't it happen between us? Why did I fail? Why did you come almost close enough —and no closer?"
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Summer And Smoke by Tennessee Williams
Directed Jack Cummings III
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).
Set design is by Dane Laffrey
Costume design by Kathryn Rohe
Lighting design by R. Lee Kennedy
Sound design by Walter Trarbach
Original music by Michael John LaChiusa
Stage Manager: Terri K. Kohler
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours, including 1 intermission
Classic Stage Company 136 East 13th Street
From 4/13/18; opening 5/03/18; closing 5/25/18.
Tuesday through Thursday evenings at 7 pm; Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/29 press preview
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