Review: Stunning Lyricism in CSC’s ‘Summer and Smoke’
By Miles Harter, Contributing Writer, May 4, 2018
Summer and Smoke is a somewhat lesser-known work by the brilliant Tennessee Williams, but it also deserves nearly as much critical acclaim. The play is now being presented by Classic Stage Company, together with Transport Group. The current rendering of Summer and Smoke is one of the many CSC productions that never fails to enchant audiences.
The two-act, 13-scene play was first produced 70 years ago. It is set in the early 20th century in the fictional small town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi. The simple set by Dane Laffrey and lighting by R. Lee Kennedy effectively capture the evocative mood of the town and its characters.
The focus is on Alma Winemiller, the minister’s daughter, and John Buchanan, the doctor’s son who lives next door. In various scenes we watch them grow and see their complicated relationship evolve. Williams also portrays their sometimes fraught family situations. Alma’s mother has a type of mental disability stemming from an earlier breakdown; much of Alma’s life involves performing the usual minister’s wife’s duties, and we see her frustrations in being stuck in such a role at a young age. John starts out as the wild and undisciplined medical student, who does not appear to have a chance of fulfilling his father’s expectations.
The cast is stellar. Marin Ireland’s portrayal as Alma is reminiscent of the legendary haunting performance by Geraldine Page in the 1961 film version of the play, in which Page garnered an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress in a Leading Role. Nathan Darrow is also convincing as the boy next door. His transformation appears to be not unlike the metamorphosis of Bob Merrick in the 1929 novel Magnificent Obsession by C. Lloyd Douglas. In one of Rock Hudson’s early roles, Hudson was an excellent Bob Merrick. One wonders as Summer and Smoke evolves (which Williams wrote in 1948 after the publication of the 1929 novel), whether there will be a similar upbeat ending. But then one also realizes this is a Tennessee Williams play.
Still, the plot, particularly of Summer and Smoke, is almost secondary to the affecting language of Williams, spoken especially through the voice of Alma. The audience keeps waiting excitedly for more of her poetry. Towards the end of the play she tells a traveling salesman: “Life is full of little mercies like that, not big mercies, but comfortable little mercies. And so we go on.”
Barbara Walsh also stands out in portraying the difficult role of Mrs. Winemiller, Alma’s mother. Unfortunately, a quibble with the play (and not the actor’s performance) is that Mrs. Winemiller never evokes any sympathy as she barks out nasty biting comments and observations, often directed to the long-suffering Alma. Yet again, we are reminded by Alma: “And I always say that life is such a mysteriously complicated thing that no one should presume to judge and condemn the behavior of anyone else.”
Summer and Smoke presented by Classic Stage Company in association with Transport Group, at 136 East 13th Street, through May 20, 2018. By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Jack Cummings III; set design by Dane Laffrey; costume design by Kathryn Rohe; lighting design by R. Lee Kennedy; sound design by Walter Trarbach. Cast: Glenna Brucken, Phillip Clark, Nathan Darrow, Hannah Elless, Elena Hurst, Marin Ireland, Tina Johnson, Gerardo Rodriguez, T. Ryder Smith, Ryan Spahn, Jonathan Spivey, and Barbara Walsh.
Cover: Marin Ireland and Nathan Darrow in ‘Summer and Smoke;’ photo: Carol Rosegg.