It’s easy to see how a production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke could quickly go awry—with its heavy-handed symbolism, stark dichotomies (body vs. soul), and a story centered on an affected Southern “spinster” who is fiercely holding onto her virtue in the face of a man’s unrepentant desire. But Jack Cummings III’s production manages to mostly slip the bonds of overwrought melodrama thanks to a minimalist approach, a singular leading lady, and a strong cast overall.
Alma Winemiller (Marin Ireland) is the minister’s daughter who must tend to her stern father and her ailing mother and manage the household as a wife would. For this reason, she is old before her time, lost in her books, dreamy ideas, and religiosity, and out of sync with her contemporaries. She knows she is different but does not fully comprehend how much so.
For as long as she can remember, she has been in love with the handsome boy next door, John Buchanan (Nathan Darrow) whose father is the town doctor. At his father’s insistence, John becomes a doctor as well. But John would rather spend his days gambling and tomcatting around the local casino. Despite his rejection of religion, his drunken self-loathing, and his extracurricular activities, there’s something in him drawn to the prim and principled Alma.
Ireland’s Alma thinks and feels her way through each interaction in the play. Whether it be her flirtations with John, her attempts to control her ill mother, or her verbal battles with the local gossip, she is a fully-realized character who is fighting for an understanding of herself and her desires in this society that comes to make less and less sense to her. The more Alma learns about the world and her own sense of self, the shakier the ground around her becomes. Ireland is compulsive to watch. She gives Alma a backbone as she wends her way through lust, love, and piety. Although Alma has fits of anxiety and generates a nervous energy, Ireland funnels this into careful character work which never reads as flighty or silly (as Williams’ women can sometimes feel). Her Alma is vibrating with a passion and intensity that John can see but that Alma has not yet begun to recognize. It spills out in her nervous laughs and darting eyes. I could have watched her Alma for days, gaining insight with every gasp and gesture.
As for John, he’s a fuckboi of the first order. But Nathan Darrow, looking like a young Billy Crudup (it is unsettling how much so), manages to be both sexual dynamite and someone we can hate on Alma’s behalf. John is ashamed of his own depravity and he’s just conflicted and remorseful enough that we cannot easily write him off. Darrow gives him that lethal touch of vulnerability that we the audience and Alma can be taken in by. We are pulled towards this magnetic mess of tousled curls in a crisp white suit. When he touches Alma we feel the electricity and when stares deeply into her eyes…. Alma, we get it girl. Maybe he can be reformed! Yet as soon as the thought enters our minds, his self-loathing and wallowing lead him immediately into the arms of another woman. F.U.C.K.B.O.I. par supreme. Darrow captures it perfectly.
There are some production missteps which are frustrating. John’s primary paramour is Rosa Gonzalez (Elena Hurst) and the production adopts unwelcome mid-century Hollywood movie stereotypes of Mexicans to depict her. The musical score (by Michael John LaChiusa) relies on Spanish guitars and castanets as underscoring for Gonzalez. She’s dressed like she’s about to star in Flamenco das Musical! And even if Williams’s stage directions describe Rosa at some point as dressed in a flamenco costume I think in 2018 we could lean out and not in on such suggestions.
Cummings chooses a minimalist approach for design. Although Williams play calls for a detailed sense of sky, here there is a diaphanous ceiling to the stage and the stage light gets diffused through it. It’s less the presence of nature or god and more an oppressive frame to Alma’s shrinking world which serves the play well–Alma in a delicate vise. Though many scenes take place around a park and fountain, here there’s just a photograph of the angelic fountain on stage. This is Alma’s symbol. John gets an anatomy chart. The power of these ideas falls flat on their easels.
Worse, Cummings has the actors miming most of the props. This is the second “mimed” production I’ve seen this spring and I must object if this is becoming a trend. No matter the training and skills of your fine actors, they don’t remember where they put down the imaginary book they were holding. A few select props won’t kill your minimalism.
There was part of me that dreaded another story of a woman’s suffering, particularly because of religion, Puritanical fathers, and bad boy dickheads. But the play (and how this production handled it) surprised me. In Alma’s struggle, the play is trying to point out the hypocrisy of this community and its social mores.
The town is filled with busybodies who are out to judge their neighbors but they are also quick to redeem select ones when they so choose. Alma’s mother has had a breakdown, the result of which is she is a regressed child. But Alma’s mother’s childish antics start to feel less “crazy” in this town driven by self-denial and deprivation. Alma’s mother demands what she wants, says whatever she thinks, and is constantly disruptive. But she’s often telling the truth. Perhaps Alma’s mother has found her own way to subvert life in this restrictive community.
Even Alma’s illnesses could be read as her own form of rebellion. As the minister’s daughter, she has very little space to stray. But she can race out of the house at 2 am and demand treatment from her doctor without anyone questioning it and might gain some sympathy for her weak constitution. She’s found a socially acceptable way to transgress.
That she stops playing by their rules though is when Alma’s journey really digs in. In the end of the play, Alma gets a strange release. She is liberated somehow of both the trap of her desire for John and her clinging to the last vestige of community morality. It’s not a pretty picture nor is it really a triumph, but there’s a strength and honesty to her final choice in Ireland’s capable hands.