Madness and Sainthood

Frozen in the center of Boomerang Theatre Company’s staging of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, halfway between the homes of its two central characters, a stone angel casts a weighty shadow of symbolism onto the events that unfold before it. The angel not only marks a fountain that serves as a meeting point for Williams's characters, but its unchanging presence also reflects the imprisonment of Alma Winemiller, the play’s haunting leading lady. The recent recipient of the Caffe Cino Award at the New York Innovative Theatre Awards, Boomerang has taken on a hefty challenge with this work. Most of its inherent difficulty lies in the psychological intelligence that’s required of the actors playing high-strung, moralistic Alma and magnetic, self-absorbed Johnny Buchanan.

Summer and Smoke is set in 1916, in a small town in the Mississippi Delta. Alma and Johnny are neighbors, and both bound by the legacies set by their families. Alma, a preacher’s daughter, has been forced to take charge of household duties after her mother’s mental breakdown. Johnny is on his way to becoming part of his father’s medical practice, but he rebels against his family’s expectations by focusing on drinking and womanizing. Despite warnings from the community about Johnny’s irresponsible nature, Alma is smitten, and determined to reform him.

A master at providing a poetic context to deep-seeded and relatable emotions, Williams doesn’t let his characters off easy. We watch them display remarkable self-awareness and, in spite of it, fail at their attempts to change their lives; this level of cold realism is ultimately what makes Summer and Smoke a profoundly sad viewing experience, and an intensive undertaking for the actors who tackle this material.

As Alma, Jane Cortney puts forth a commendable effort. Her character’s tendency to hyperventilate, nervous speech patterns and an erupting sadness hidden behind her kind demeanor are as essential as the poignant lines she delivers. Throughout the work, she is required to convey exaggerated behavior as aspects of her character, not as parts of her acting process. At times her exertion is too obvious, but in the end it’s tough not to admire Cortney’s devotion. When Alma’s hope begins to give way to her family’s legacy of hysteric madness, the tragedy of her conscious defeat is likely to ingrain itself in an audience’s memory.

Jonathan Kells Phillips as Johnny is equally convincing. Intelligent but self-absorbed, he portrays the kind of unintentionally damaging nature that many audience members are likely to recognize in other emotionally scarred playboys. The earnestness and vulnerability he displays with Alma makes his subsequent selfishness all the more aggravating. There are times when we can clearly see Phillips focusing on his phrasing, but the otherwise strong performance makes this minor glitch easy to overlook.

The supporting cast also gives noteworthy performances. Beth Ann Leone as Johnny’s lover Rosa Gonzalez channels unspoken magnetism into the character’s looseness, and thus helps the audience relate to a character that could easily be interpreted as a thankless stereotype. Deborah Carlson, meanwhile, is heartbreaking, aggravating and unexpectedly amusing as Alma’s unstable mother. Despite the character’s handicap, we sometimes get the sense that Mrs. Winemiller is more aware of the conflicts around her than she lets on.

The small black box theater provides an ideal setting for the characters’ fine-tuned range of emotions. Watching them confront one another from such a close proximity triggers just the right level of discomfort; as audience members, we realize that we are dropping in on something private. Watching the work of great playwrights in such an intimate setting is a rare treat, and Summer and Smoke’s talented cast of actors only elevates the experience.

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