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Summer and Smoke

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Summer and Smoke has never achieved quite the level of popularity or familiarity of some of Tennessee Williams's other plays, including the earlier Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, and the Turtle Shell Productions production of it at The Little Theater gives a fairly good idea why.

It's probably Williams's most intensely passionate play, but it's not so much poorly written as it is unspectacular, unexciting, and generally uninvolving. A genteel Southern woman, the exciting man who tests both her morals and her weak constitution, and the battle between what is and what might be - these subjects are hardly uncommon in Williams's works, but lacking characters with the complexity or weight of an Amanda Wingfield or a Blanche Du Bois, Summer and Smoke is a far less appealing work.

Perhaps the author himself was aware of this, as he was dissatisfied with the play in its original 1948 Broadway production, and would eventually rewrite it as The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, which he considered less conventional and melodramatic than Summer and Smoke. The Turtle Shell production is beautiful, featuring fine direction by Shawn Rozsa, a lovely set by Keven Lock, and exquisite costumes by Gentry Farley, but no element of the production can camouflage that the play is, at its best, Williams lite.

The central figure is Alma Winemiller (Sally Conway), who has loved her exciting and self-indulgent neighbor, John Buchanan, Jr. (John Wesely Cooper), ever since they were children. When John returns from school, he reunites with Alma, and they both find themselves drawn to each other, though John's eye can't help but stray toward the exotic Rosa Gonzales (Chala Savino). Alma, attempting to woo John using her traditional Southern techniques, finds herself outmatched and unable to escape her own repressive home - her father is a reverend (Hal Blankenship), and her mother (Joan Grant) is mentally ill and childlike - and grows to need the escape she believes John can provide her.

Williams also tossed in a few other elements - Alma's possible addiction to sleeping pills and the crush one of her singing students (Rebecca Welles) has for her and eventually John - that give the play a feel very similar to that of his other works. That Alma and John are both hiding from the world - she with a highly affected Southern manner complete with modified vowels and dizzy spells and he with penchant for indiscriminate gambling and love-making - should not come as a surprise. Nor should the ending, which is unmistakable Williams in outlook and tone.

Conway joyously wraps her voice around Alma's lilting tones, and she's great to listen to, though she has a bit of trouble getting into the inner depths of her character. Cooper is better, capturing a likeable turn-of-the-century charm that can just as easily turn into a dark streak. Ed Schiff, as his father, and Blankenship provide imposing characterizations, and Grant turns in an intriguing and appropriately oppressive performance. Savino and Marcelo De Oliveira (as her father) are a bit over the top, but Welles is often delightful, and Kimberley Parente and Sam Kressner, as younger versions of Alma and John appearing in only one scene, do a good job.

As for Rozsa, he makes excellent use of the stage space, and has efficiently directed the piece to bring out all the Southern atmosphere of the script. (Jessica Lynn Hinkle's lights, often suggesting warm summer nights, help out a bit.) One problem is probably slightly beyond his control - the acoustics of The Little Theater aren't exactly ideal, and when the actors don't face directly out into the house, the sound gets a bit mushy.

Still, it's hard to imagine a better place to present this play today - The Little Theater is where Williams created and workshopped the play in 1946. (He also lived above it, in the Westside YMCA.) That makes this production of Summer and Smoke an interesting endeavor, well worth seeing for the quality of its presentation and its historical significance. But as for the play itself, history is probably the best place for it.

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Turtle Shell Productions
Summer and Smoke
Through March 13
The Little Theater, 4 West 64th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444