Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke has always been a puzzler. It arrived only 10 months after the premiere of Streetcar, so hopes must have been high. But the original reviews were mixed, resulting in a disappointing run of 102 performances. A 1952 Off-Broadway production was more successful, making a star of Geraldine Page. New York Times’ critic Brooks Atkinson, who had championed the play on Broadway, was even more enthusiastic about the revival, pointing out that it’s better served in an intimate space.
Still, Summer and Smoke has never really become canonical, certainly not in the way that Streetcar or even Night of the Iguana has. The playwright himself seems to have been dissatisfied; in 1964, he reworked it as Eccentricities of a Nightingale.
It’s easy to see why. Summer and Smoke is a fascinating but often maddening immersion into the best and worst of Williams. In his first review, Atkinson wrote that the playwright “is a poet of the theatre. Summer and Smoke is no literary exercise but a theatre piece charged with passion and anguish.” The passion and anguish are there for sure… but like a few other Williams’ plays (Iguana is another), I wonder if it would have worked better as a short story.
The central theme—female sexuality and frustrated desire—is familiar territory. Alma Winemiller is a small-town singing teacher whose arch, grand manner (mostly a pose to cover her awkwardness) is a source of snide local gossip. Alma is helplessly drawn to John Buchanan, a handsome but weak young doctor. Though John occasionally reciprocates her affections, we sense from the start that the cause is hopeless. In a particularly Williams-y touch, she’s often called “Miss Alma,” emphasizing her spinsterhood.
But while the subject is very much in Williams’ wheelhouse, Summer and Smoke’s historical setting (beginning around the turn of the century) is an oddity that doesn’t really suit his authorial voice. The fictional Mississippi town here is called “Glorious Hill,” one of many strokes of mock-grandiosity that leave me wondering exactly what tone Williams is trying to conjure.
Something about the Madonna/Whore parallel (Alma’s chief rival is Rosa Gonzalez, a gangster’s vamp-ish daughter) suggests humor. So too do the town’s prudish citizens, as when the respectable Mrs. Bassett chides the local book club members for considering William Blake: “Insane! Insane! The man is a mad fanatic!” There’s more than a whiff of camp to Summer and Smoke, yet it’s clearly meant to be poignant. The handkerchief that Alma hands to John early in the play resonates with Der Rosenkavalier—flirtation now, tears later.
What, I wonder, would Atkinson, who favored a small-scale Summer and Smoke, make of director Jack Cummings III’s production for the Transport Group, in collaboration with Classic Stage Company?
To call it pared-down would be an understatement; apart from a few pieces of furniture and a framed image of the angel sculpture in the town square, the stage is a brilliantly white, empty space. Cummings mines the humor of Summer and Smoke; but even more, he focuses on the sexual chemistry.
He’s got the right pair of leading actors, that’s for sure. Marin Ireland is an off-beat choice for Alma. Her sometimes sardonic presence and cool blonde beauty initially seem ill-suited to the pitying way the character is described by the locals; she looks more like a Blanche DuBois or Maggie the Cat. But though she’s far from the buttoned-up, repressed Alma of tradition, Ireland is a vividly detailed actress, alive to every moment of the text, and particularly good at the hairpin emotional turns.
She and Nathan Darrow (John Buchanan) are knock-out couple, generating the kind of electricity that pulls us in but also feels dangerous. Darrow is sensational throughout, capturing not only John’s allure but also his weakness. (How I wish I’d seen him a few years ago in Long Day’s Journey into Night at Arena Stage!)
Barbara Walsh is effectively weird as Mrs. Winemiller, Alma’s flighty mother, and T. Ryder Smith suitably forbidding as Alma’s minister father. The rest generally do well, though Elena Hurst (Rosa Gonzalez) registers more as a startling physical presence than a multi-dimensional character. (That’s Williams’ fault as much as Hurst’s—he’s written Rosa as a stereotypical Latin spitfire.)
I don’t know whether the minimalist approach here is dictated by circumstance (it’s a very small stage, with no fly or wing space), artistic vision, or both. Whatever led to it, there’s a palpable sense of sweeping away the cobwebs in Cummings’ production, which holds our attention.
But the sense of locale and community mostly disappears, and that’s a loss. Williams gives Glorious Hill considerable metaphoric weight, including that angel sculpture that casts a shadow. It’s a typical Southern town of its era, with band concerts in the square—but also its share of tight-knit church groups full of narrow, judgmental minds. Mostly it’s a comfortable place, although Alma’s mother—a combative, compulsive “truth-teller” who may or may not be mentally ill—functions as a seer of what lies beneath and a disruption to the smug sense of respectability.
In stripping the stage nearly bare and removing so much context, we lose the sense of how much Alma is a product of her environment. Here, she seems very neurotic indeed—and as I’ve opined many times before, Williams’ heroines need compassion, not further pathologizing.