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Summer and Smoke

I feel like a water-lily on a Spanish lagoon. —Alma

Amanda Plummer as Alma and Kevin Anderson as John Buchanan Jr.
Amanda Plummer as Alma and Kevin Anderson as John Buchanan Jr. (Photo: Gerry Goodstein )
An early work of Tennessee Williams, Summer and Smoke is filled with the rich and rueful lyricism that permeated The Glass Menagerie. That it also has a simmering erotic edge that ignited more viscerally in A Streetcar Named Desire, secures its place as a provocative and significant play in the Williams canon. This glorious co-production comes to the Paper Mill Playhouse from the Hartford Stage, where it was, and still is, directed with a gratifying balance of toughness and tenderness by Michael Wilson. Except for Kevin Anderson replacing Marc Kudisch in the role of John Buchanan Jr., the cast, including the marvelous and mesmerizing Amanda Plummer, remains intact. That all the play's compassionate textures are also in tact is also good news.

The story's sprawling structure makes it necessary for furniture and props to be carried on and off the stage rather frequently, but it is done with finesse. It is a marvel, however, how designer Tony Straiges' basic setting, the town square, its angel fountain and the cumulous cloud in the blue sky stay part of the emotional center of the play. It is also a marvel how focused we remain on Alma Winemiller (Amanda Plummer), the fastidious, sometimes ridiculous, spinster who graces the play.

I won't be caught in the trap of recalling others (at least four) who have played this challenging and cherished role, but I will go on record saying that Plummer is giving Alma's guarded vulnerability a dimension of honest intelligence that sets her above and beyond any interpretation in my memory. It is a meticulously executed performance, and one shimmer with the delicacy and poignancy that is destined to identify a mellowing, if psychologically corrupted, unmarried woman of the time.

Set in Mississippi from the turn of the century through 1916, the plot revolves around the fleeting, if unconsummated, romantic connection between Alma (whose name means soul), the by-family-oppressed daughter of a minister, and John (Kevin Anderson), the rakish young doctor who lives next door. The pull and tug between Alma, the essence of misguided purity, and John, a presence of misdirected sensuality, resounds through much of the play. As the events and circumstances of their evasive and futile relationship can be seen as conspiring to keep them apart, these also ironically act as the catalysts for John's eventual discovery of the soul, but more unhappily to Alma's flirtation with amorality and her eventual loss of faith.

Anderson emphasizes John's bitterness over disillusionment and hate over heartbreak in a performance rooted in turbulence yet enhanced by an inherent tenderness. The supporting roles have always been intriguing but rarely as fully conceptualized as they are here. It is easy to empathize with the inflexible postures of Jack Davidson, as The Rev. Winemiller, Alma's overly protective and didactic father. His primary "cross" is his seriously nutty wife, played with a dazzling and dizzying disregard for anyone's feeling but her own by Jennifer Harmon. Stephanie Beatriz lends more than a superficial presence as Rosa Gonzales, the undulating Mexican senorita who seduces John. Mateo Gomez asserts his dangerous side as Rosa's pistol packin' father.

There isn't a minor role that isn't given a memorable twist, including Alma's stifling friends and the bevy of Glorious Hill, Mississippi townspeople, dressed for all seasons by the talented David C. Woolard, who contribute to the social flavor and temperament of the times. Despite a rather large cast, our attention is drawn to the soul of the play, Alma's spiraling fall from grace. It remains as heartbreaking as that of any of Williams' heroines. This stunning revival can stand tall among anything currently on or off Broadway.

Summer and Smoke
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Michael Wilson
Cast: Jack Davidson/Rev. Winemiller, Jennifer Harmon/Mrs. Winemiller, Curtis Billings/Dusty , Elizabeth Capinera/Pearl, Kevin Anderson/John Buchanan Jr , Nafe Katter/Dr. Buchanan Sr. , Amanda Plummer/Alma Winemiller, Stephanie Beatriz/Rosa Gonzales, Marta Reiman/Nellie Ewell , Johanna Morrison/Mrs. Bassett, Elizabeth Capinera/ Rosemary,Bill Kux/Roger Doremus, John Ort/Vernon, Papa Gonzales/Mateo Gomez, Curtis Billings/Archie Kramer., Olivia D'ambrosio and Kyle Mclaughlin/ Townspeople
Scenic Design: Tony Straiges
Costume Design: David C. Woolard Lighting Design: Rui Ria
Sound Design: John Gromada
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes (including intermission)
Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, N.J.
Performances January 11 — February 11, 2007
Wednesdays at 7:30 PM, Thursdays at 2 PM & 7:30 PM, Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 2 PM & 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM & 7:30 PM.
Prices: $19 - $68. Student rush tickets are $16.
For tickets call 973/ 376- 4343 or
Opening night January 14, 2007
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance January 14, 2007
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Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.

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