Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams
At Classic Stage Company on East 13th Street
BSonArts rating: B+
Show-Score Rating: 88
“Summer and Smoke” meets “Our Town” in a moving production by Classic Stage Company in collaboration with the Transport Group. Director Jack Cummings III has stripped the play of traditional sets and props and, in the process, he has given Tennessee Williams’ play a renewed sense of universality. It is no longer simply a period piece about mores of southern culture at the turn of the 20th century. Cummings’ production draws us into a conflict between the desires of the flesh and the entrapments of the soul.
Alma is the daughter of a minister and a mother who is mentally ill. John is the son of a respected physician in the small town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi. Alma and John are inexplicably attracted to each other but incapable of forming a relationship. Alma is a product of her environment – she wants to be a proper woman who nourishes her soul by resisting temptation. John wants to break out of his environment – he is a man who feeds on the pleasures of the flesh.
Williams paints a portrait of two people who are mysteriously drawn together only to be repulsed by each other’s sense of self. As the play progresses, we see each of these tortured souls recognizing the futility of their beliefs. Each slowly transforms their personas into a mirror image of the other, only to discover that their transformations come too late and their new perspectives continue to feed an insurmountable separation.
The CSC production uses only a bare stage with a few chairs and a portrait of a fountain, with the sculpture of the angel of eternity, that is where Alma and John discover their feelings and experience, for the first time, their inability to accept each other for who and what they are. Williams’ script has thirteen scenes in a variety of locations. Cummings’ not only does away with the scenery (appropriately minimized by designer Dane Laffrey), he also gives only the faintest representations of props through the actors’ mimes. The actors perform on a white stage with a white roof overhead. Even Kathryn Rohe’s costumes, generally close to period in style, are almost all variations of black and white.
This is minimalist theatre at its best. By removing the specifics of time and place, Cummings gives us a purer portrayal of Williams’ agonizing on the conflicts between our image of self and our human desire. The audience has only to focus on Williams’ use of language and the actions of the characters.
Fortunately, Mr. Cummings has a cast capable of fully meeting the challenges of this minimalist style. At the center are Marin Ireland as Alma and Nathan Darrow as John Buchanan. Ms. Ireland gives us an Alma with torn insides. She shows us a girl, and eventually a woman, who desperately desires a man who would destroy what she sees as her sense of self-worth. Mr. Darrow reveals a boy, and eventually a man, who wants to break away from the societal constraints on seeking pleasure. As each transforms into their opposites, both of these performers show us the pain and exasperation these two would-be true lovers go through trying to find their way in their journey to the other side. They handle Williams’ poetic language as common speech, giving it a uniquely powerful quality in a minimalist form. The supporting cast is equally resourceful, although Williams is clearly using them only as a framing device for the awkward meetings of the would-be, but could not be, lovers.
CSC’s usual three-quarters in the round stage has been repositioned to make a longer playing area. In general, the staging is mindful of playing to all parts of the surrounding audience, although some of the most important scenes related to Alma’s transformation are staged with Ms. Ireland facing the dead wall, cut off from much of the audience. But otherwise Mr. Cummings uses this open space very effectively. The style of this production is enhanced by the audience “seeing through” the stage picture to more audience.
We tend to think of Tennessee Williams as a period writer – a great playwright, but the plays are confined to time and place. This production is not bound by realism and, in the process, becomes disturbingly real and sadly true.