Classic Stage Company and Transport Group are taking a fresh look at Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. Critical estimation of this lyrical drama—the playwright's fourth Broadway outing—has fluctuated since its 1948 premiere. After the original New York presentation, Summer and Smoke seemed destined for obscurity. But Jose Quintero’s 1952 production for Circle in the Square was a triumph and, according to many commentators, marked the birth of Off-Broadway. The current revival, under sure-handed direction by Jack Cummings III, discards the realistic trappings of mid-20th-century American theater and features a nearly ideal cast.
Summer and Smoke takes place shortly before the First World War, when Victorian mores still held sway in the Deep South. The focal characters, Alma Winemiller (Marin Ireland) and John Buchanan, Jr. (Nathan Darrow), are former schoolmates in a small town on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.
Alma is a minister’s daughter, high-minded, prim (especially about sex), and nervous to the brink of hysteria. John has excelled in medical school; but his yens are gambling, booze, and easy women. The two encounter each other shortly after John’s return from medical training. Their renewed acquaintance starts as a genteel mating dance; it swiftly becomes a Manichean skirmish between the urges of intellect and sensuality.
Ireland and Darrow—age-appropriate in roles often filled by performers too long in the tooth—display remarkable chemistry. They’re supported by an ensemble of 10 who furnish Southern Gothic flavor without capitulating to stereotypes. Especially memorable are Barbara Walsh and T. Ryder Smith as Alma’s ill-matched parents; Hannah Elless as a sweet yet forceful teenager; and Ryan Spahn, who doubles as an aesthete in Alma’s clique of misfits and the traveling salesman eager to explore her erotic fantasies.
Alma is among the best-crafted characters in Williams’ canon. The playwright captures her puritan self-righteousness so vividly that other qualities could be overshadowed.
“You have a chance … to serve a noble, humanitarian cause, to relieve human suffering,” Alma says to John. She’s distressed by his licentiousness and rues the fact that “all the gifts of the gods were showered on him,” yet “all he cares about is indulging his senses.”
Ireland balances Alma’s stridency and near-hysteria with charm, kindness, and intelligence. It’s easy to see why John is simultaneously intrigued and repelled. In Ireland’s hands, Alma is a Blanche DuBois whose fate isn’t yet sealed.
Williams’ script affords John arresting moments; but the character, unlike Alma, is underwritten. Darrow imbues him with patrician virility, so he’s appealing even when his behavior is repugnant. By dint of actorly will—or, more likely, technique over dearth of textual support—Darrow gives John’s rehabilitation, which occurs between scenes, credibility and poignance.
In the play’s most familiar sequence, John scoffs at Alma’s belief that humans have immortal souls. Using physical force to make her scrutinize a diagram of human anatomy in his medical consulting room, John points to the brain, “hungry for … truth”; the belly, “hungry for food”; and “the sex which is hungry for love because it is sometimes lonesome.” He berates Alma for starving all three with the “hand-me-down” prejudices of her Episcopalian upbringing.
Alma and John develop in opposing directions. She surrenders to desire (a term with special resonance in Williams’ work); and, as the play ends, her focus is body rather than mind or spirit. John, on the other hand, becomes a humanitarian with a keen sense of duty. In the end they’re as far apart as they were at the beginning. “The tables have turned,” laments Alma, “yes, the tables have turned with a vengeance!”
Everything about this handsome revival conspires to rescue Williams’ text, with its poetic qualities, from the dominion of 20th-century naturalism. Original music by Michael John LaChiusa, rich in strings and woodwinds, complements the playwright’s euphonious, sometimes florid, language. R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting design, splashed like paint against Dane Laffrey’s unadorned, off-white set, is as variegated and moody as LaChiusa’s score.
The actors mime use of physical items, except a revolver and a cane essential to a fight scene. Dispensing with stage properties is a bold but miscalculated stroke. Take, for instance, an important moment when Ireland and Walsh wage a balletic tug of war for possession of a plumed hat: Williams’ stage directions indicate that the upshot is a demolished hat, indicative of the broken relationships within the Winemiller household. With no prop to tussle over, the actors (who aren't primarily mimes) are hard-pressed to convey what has happened. The result is not merely unclear but also distracting.
This production, like Transport Group’s recent revival of William Inge’s Picnic, makes a 20th-century classic readily accessible to 21st-century sensibilities. Alma is unlikely to displace Blanche or Amanda Wingfield in the hierarchy of Williams’ achievements, but this landmark reassessment repudiates the notion that Summer and Smoke is second- or third-tier Tennessee Williams.
Summer and Smoke, presented by Classic Stage Company and Transport Group, runs through May 25 at CSC (136 E. 13th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call (212) 677-4210 or visit classicstage.org.