Summer and Smoke: A Gentle Beauty
also see Bob's review of I Am My Own Wife
The play opens amidst the 4th of July festivities at the pavilion in the Glorious Hill, Mississippi town park in 1914. Here we encounter voice teacher Alma Winemiller (Amanda Plummer), the uptight and sexually repressed daughter of the local minister, and handsome young doctor John Buchanan, Jr. (Kevin Anderson), who is given to wastrel behavior (inebriation and carnality). Although John is brutally honest with Alma about her squeamish, repressed manner ("Forthrightness is often an excuse for cruelty," Alma reminds him), there is a strong and believable mutual attraction between them.
Over the course of the play, their relationship and the flow of events lead to reversals of character and fortune, leading John to salvation and Alma to a hellish existence. But nothing is schematic here. Everything arises from a complex pattern of interactions, circumstance and events, as well as fate and fortune. Each of these elements is complex in and of itself. When they interact together, they produce incalculable results. In the play's first scene, Williams artfully articulates the destructive dysfunction in each one's paternal home. In Alma's case, it is rooted in her father's having thrust upon her the duties of a minister's wife when her mother wouldn't perform them.
There are religious and philosophic undertones here. It is pointed out that Alma means "soul" in Spanish. John finds his redemption with the help of Alma, and, in the process, Alma can be seen as having emerged a tarnished angel.
Amanda Plummer is an appealing and multi-dimensional Alma. Plummer efficiently delineates Alma's silly, fluttery mannerisms, her suppressed as well as emerging passion, and her inherent goodness. However, it is the clarity with which Plummer puts forth Alma's sharp intelligence which most engages our sympathies and interest, and distinguishes her performance. Would things have turned out better for Alma if she had been able to more quickly display her passion for John? We can never really know, but it is a tantalizing thought. And her clear understanding of her situation informs us poignantly that it is a person of substance who has been beaten down by the strong undertows which life has brought her.
Kevin Anderson brings his easy good looks and a bad boy charm to the role of John. With the help of Williams' writing (which at the start shows us both his integrity as a doctor and how his overbearing, judgmental father destroyed his psyche), Anderson adroitly keeps us aware of positive qualities which vie with his debauched and cruel behavior for supremacy.
Marta Reiman plays Nellie, Alma's music student whose romantic interest turns to John. Reiman nicely depicts her maturation and emergence as a confident woman. Jack Davidson's self-concerned and ineffectual Rev. Winemiller, Jennifer Harmon's addled and childish Mrs. Winemiller, and Nafe Katter's Dr. Buchanan Sr. effectively portray varied faces of destructive parents. Stephanie Beatriz as Rosa Gonzalez, John's disreputable, hellfire object of passion, and Mateo Gomez as her murderous father make strong impressions despite the stereotypic, one dimensional roles As various other townsfolk, the balance of the large cast performs as a well tuned ensemble.
The lovely unit set by Tony Straiges largely reflects the original design of the great Broadway designer Jo Mielziner. An extended pointed arch is extended across the stage with one circularized small arch at either end. Under the central arch is a fountain with a large sculptured angel. The small arch at stage right represents the Buchanan house, and the one at stage left, the Winemiller house. Furniture and props are brought on to further delineate each home. Red, white and blue bunting decorates the central arch for the 4th of July. The evocative, detailed period costumes are by David C. Woolard. A major asset is the background and scene transition score by composer and sound designer John Gromada. Light, evocative period band music helps set the mood and period at the opening. Other gentle but darker melodies emerge throughout the balance of the evening.
Co-produced with Hartford Stage, and directed by the latter's Artistic Director Michael Wilson, this lovely and insightful production reveals all of the richness of Summer and Smoke. The play does drag a little in the second act, and the thought that a faster pace or more emphatic presentation might help crossed my mind. However, any attempt to raise the heat could well rip the fabric of the entire piece.
Summer and Smoke is unmistakably Tennessee Williams. Although it was first produced ten months after A Streetcar Named Desire, it plays as if it were a bridge between The Glass Menagerie and Streetcar. Summer and Smoke has the gentleness of the former and a little of the explosive melodrama of the later. Alma is wiser and less withdrawn, but shares gentleness and repression with Laura Wingfield at the start. By the end of the play, she is well on her way to becoming Blanche DuBois. Early on, angry with her selfish mother, Alma sarcastically comments on "the kindness of family." As Summer and Smoke concludes, we know that, sadly, Alma will end up having to rely on the kindness of strangers.
Summer and Smoke continues performances Wed, Thurs., Sun. 7:30 p.m./ Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m./ Matinees Thurs., Sat., Sun. 2 p.m.) through February 11, 2007 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online www.papermill.org.
Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams, directed by Michael