Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Charming Production of Tennessee William's Summer and Smoke
Also see Richard's review of The Golden State
The Center Repertory Company is currently presenting the very seldom revived Tennessee Williams schematic Summer and Smoke at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. The play is one of the playwright's lesser masterpieces that attempts to present the problem of solitary women. It is not as forceful as Streetcar Named Desire or The Glass Menagerie in presenting the role of a friendless woman. There is a certain gentleness about this play that is not in his better known works.
Summer and Smoke premiered at the Music Box on October 4, 1948 to tepid reviews, with Margaret Phillips playing Miss Alma and Tod Andrews as John. Variety called it "a pale disappointing facsimile" of Streetcar and Menagerie. It ran only 100 performances. Williams was never satisfied with the original version and he thought he could never recreate a character like his prior masterpieces.
Summer and Smoke had better success when it was revived Off Broadway at Circle In the Square, a production I saw during the summer of 1952. This production put Off Broadway productions on the map and made Geraldine Page known as one of the finest actresses on the American stage. It ran for 356 performances. Paramount made a film in 1961 with Ms. Page repeating her role and Lawrence Harvey playing John (I had just gone over to Paramount for several years and worked as a cameraman on the project).
Tennessee Williams revised the play in 1965, calling it The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, and the Roundabout Theatre presented it September 1996 with Mary McDonnell playing the repressed woman and Harry Hamlin playing John. It was a much tighter production. BBC also did a version for television in 1972 with Lee Remick playing the role and David Hedison as John.
Summer and Smoke shows the struggle between spirituality and the senses, and love and lust. The play takes place in the humid summer of 1916 in a small town in Mississippi Delta Region. Miss Alma (Julia McNeal) is a protected daughter of a small town minister (Robert Corrick) and his unbalanced wife (Kerri Shawn). She has all of the attributes of Blanche Du Bois. She also loves to talk to whomever will listen to her. She is a typical sex-starved maiden one would see in a small town who just chatters away.
Miss Alma has a conflicted passion for John, who is a pleasure-seeking and unruly doctor. John and his father (Tom Flynn), also a doctor, reside next door and have known each other since childhood. Alma wants spiritual and permanent love, while John is interested only in sex with every woman. Their chaotic relationship becomes an affecting battle of wills that changes both of them when the play ends.
Julia McNeal is extraordinary as Miss Alma. She is able to offer a convincing portrait of aloneness, need and survival. She uses the Blanche type of speaking as she pontificates on the spirituality of love, as Alma lives in her own little world of loneliness and displays a pitiful figure. Darren Bridgett plays the young doctor who wants only to have a good time. He is excellent as a somewhat crude person who is tired of sickness and death. Sometimes the southern accent gets away from him, and in several scenes he seems to be rushing the speech patterns.
Summer and Smoke has a wonderful supporting cast. Outstanding is Pat Parker playing Mrs. Bassett. Once again, this amazing character actress has caught the character of a curmudgeonly lady with set opinions. Naz Deravian as Rose Gonzales, John's sexual partner, is sexy. Kerri Shawn is effective as the mad mother of Alma who loves ice cream.
Lee Sankowich helms the production. The opening scene of Alma and John as children has been eliminated, and he made this a tighter production that moves swiftly between scenes. Kelly Tighe's set is very detailed, with a water fountain high up on the center stage and a stone angel looking toward heaven. Norman Kern's sound design is excellent, with snatches of band music of the 1916s that one would hear in a Mississippi town. Even the crackling of fireworks at the beginning of the play is natural. The lighting by Kurt Landisman sets the mood for each scene. It is very effective in the last scene, with a shaft of light coming down to the angel. Costumes by Cassandra Carpenter are perfect for that era of history.
Summer and Smoke plays at the Margaret Lesher Theatre of he Dean Lesher Regional Center, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek through November 20th. For tickets call 925-943-SHOW. Coming next is Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol