In this week of flash and fire about the Tony Awards—who is nominated, who isn’t, which show is booming and which is crashing—here is a beautifully crafted reminder that away from Broadway there are other jewels.
The Classic Stage Company and Transport Group’s production of Tennessee Willliams’ Summer and Smoke, a collaboration to mark the 50th anniversary season of CSC itself, is near-perfect. It was written in 1947, the same year as A Streetcar Named Desire. Poor old Summer and Smoke. The world came to know who Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski were, but not so much Alma Winemiller and John Buchanan.
The play clearly obsessed Williams. Carolyn Vega, curator of the Morgan Library’s exhibit, Tennessee Williams: No Refuge But Writing, writes in the program that he kept working on Summer and Smoke for 28 years after it was first performed in Broadway in 1948.
In this new production, under Jack Cummings III’s lean direction, we are in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, from the early 1900s through 1916. There are not many glories in Glorious Hill. This is the familiar Williams territory of passion running smack bang against propriety, with a nervy background of mental illness, illicit passions, broken marriages, and secret heartaches. Still, everyone is beautifully dressed. Expect to hear flutey declarations of “I do declare…”
Facing the audience—sitting on three sides—is a bare, stark white stage, a square runway, with a white ceiling acting as a kind of sky above. There is very little on Dane Laffrey’s imaginatively configured stage apart from chairs and an easel with an image of a local park's fountain on it; the fountain is designed as an angel named Eternity. The play opens and closes with Alma (Marin Ireland) staring at it.
R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting of the space is so effective we feel as if we are in the deadening heat of a summer’s day, and then inky night. With no adornment we feel as if we are switching between locations as disparate as stuffy parlors and licentious casinos.
Alma is one of those Williams Southern heroines who looks liable to shatter, but also has an invisible rod of steel hidden inside. She drinks not just water from the fountain, but also what she imagines Eternity embodies: the nourishment of the soul.
Next door, all her life, has lived the now ruffle-haired, handsome and inevitably damaged John (Nathan Darrow). He is a doctor, and dissolute. Where Alma has the image of Eternity—the easel being meaningfully and progressively displaced as the performance continues—John retreats to his easel, one that shows the physical components of a body.
The two share a wistfulness in this stultifying town. They are the sexiest people in any room, they should be together, but they aren’t, and the bitter truth at the heart of Summer and Smoke is the anti-romance that flows between them, the attractiveness of both actors fooling and wrongfooting us as we watch them.
Why are Alma and John in perfectly opposite alignment, rather than perfect alignment? They represent poles of the human condition—restraint versus sensuality—that Williams thought irreconcilable. (He apparently based the characters of Alma and John on his own parents.)
Alma is the daughter of a minister, played by T. Ryder Smith, who is not a stern, authoritarian, God-invoking patriarch, but a meek man confused by the frailties of his daughter and his wife. Mrs. Winemiller is played by a magnificently brittle Barbara Walsh, whose own mental illness manifests in a chilling, disconnected laugh and a gleaming, beady spectator’s eye on the dysfunction in her own home.
The play doesn’t merely interrogate the non-blooming of John and Alma’s relationship, but also Alma's search for whatever is inside her. She convenes an “intellectual circle” of sundry locals, where the idea is to exchange meaningful ideas and thoughts, but really it is the forum by which Mrs. Bassett (an excellent, bustling Tina Johnson) curates and spreads gossip, including about Alma and John.
John wants Alma in a passionate moment, but it feels wrong to her; then they both change. We feel both their different pains, and sometimes—even when they are not sharing a scene, and time separates them and their circumstances change—they orbit each other, silently. Their psychological presence in each other’s lives is a constant.
The sole rankling note in the production is the portrayal of casino owner Papa Gonzales (Gerardo Rodriguez) and his daughter Rosa (Elena Hurst) whom John falls for. Sure, she is supposed to be a flamenco dancer, he a suspect casino boss, but all-too familiar Spanish-rooted stereotypes—whatever Williams wrote and intended—feel too one-note in 2018.
This doesn’t detract from an otherwise intelligent and immaculately staged production. Ireland’s final big speech to John is voiced with both a pained confusion and an absolute clarity, as it transmits its own terrible truth about the strange workings of head and heart. In a teasing coda, an encounter in the park in the dead of night, Eternity looking on, may signal another change in Alma’s personality.
In 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire took all the glory, and Summer and Smoke – while performed over the years – has remained something of a curio. The CSC and Transport Group’s rescue-from-obscurity mission is a sublime triumph.
Summer and Smoke is at CSC, 136 East 13th Street, NYC, until May 20. Book here.