Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Summer and Smoke
Violet Sky Theatre
Review by Christine M. Malcom

Joshua J. Volkers and Lindsey Zanatta
Photo by Bobby Romay
Violet Sky Theatre, a new Chicago company founded in 2021, notes that this small collective of artists emerged out of a desire for connection to stories, to humanity, and to the moments that make us aware of that humanity. These founding principles are well-represented and, overall, well-realized in the group's production of Summer and Smoke, one of Tennessee Williams' lesser known plays.

The production's successes begin with effective use of the intimate black box space at the Reginald Vaughn Theater. Kevin Rolf's scenic design underpins that success by providing effective visual shorthand for the characters, their relationships, and the spiritual and intellectual backdrop of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, in the early twentieth century.

The upstage wall features weathered, not-quite-gothic triangular frames that enclose the domestic spaces of the Buchanans' home and medical practice and the Winemillers' living room within the town's rectory. These are not quite centered and not quite equal in size, a choice that emphasizes both the claustrophobia of the latter and the sparse, clinical nature of the former. Standing between these two is the beautifully rendered stone angel that watches over the town's fountain and park.

To these fixed set pieces, Rolfs adds a handful of small, carefully vintage furniture pieces. These serve to keep the action moving briskly as well as to keep the visuals consistent. For example, the lift-top desk and small, glass-fronted cabinet within the Buchanans' home and office remain in place throughout, whereas the Winemillers' small octagonal table with its fussy brass legs, faux provincial loveseat with its embroidered cover, and a tiny stool also featuring an embroidered top are easily moved and covered to set the action in the play's few other locations.

The costume design by Kristina Newcomb and Katy Blaustein, on the whole, acts as a strong complement to the aesthetic and vision established by the scenic design. Johnny Buchanan, Jr.'s, leather suspenders, boots, and rough henley establish the character's contradictions and provoke curiosity from his first appearance at the feet of the angel. Newcomb and Blaustein then smartly build on this baseline style to sell the moments when he is seized with the desire to try to be the kind of man who might forge a relationship with Alma. It also visually connects that sprawling, lascivious character from the play's first moments with the tightly controlled, anguished man at the end.

For Alma, modest hemlines, high necks, and carefully managed décolletage are near constants from the the beginning of the play to the end. Even her brief appearances in her nightclothes emphasize tightly tied sashes and the long, baggy overcoat she dons when the events of the play's climax draw her from her own home to the Buchanans' in the middle of the night. At the plays end, her hair, worn loose, and the carefully guarded brass pillbox subtly but forcefully counteract the message her sober navy dress is trying to send.

With Williams, a light hand with language is always critical to a production's success. Both Eden Blattner's direction and August Rain Stamper's dialect design set the cast up for that success, on the whole. To a certain extent, there's no getting around the fact that Williams' extended dialogue explaining Alma's "pretentious" accent (shared by her Rhodes Scholar father and later acquired by Nellie at her finishing school) is rather clunky, but the consistent, unhesitating delivery by the actors minimizes this as much as possible.

In terms of overall direction, Blattner has done a skillful job guiding the cast through a play that is somewhat disjointed on the page. As Alma and Johnny, Lindsey Zanatta and Joshua J. Volkers conjure up two forceful, flawed characters and convincingly convey the impossible yet undeniable attraction between them. In the theater's small space, Zanatta's nervous body language is contagious, and just when Volkers seems to have delivered some unforgivably brutal line of Johnny's dialogue, he crafts a hushed, yearning moment to pull the character back from the brink.

Although it is both unfair and inaccurate to cast the strength of these two leads as some kind of flaw in the direction or the production overall, it's true that the fact that Zanatta and Volkers are so compelling, paired with the fact that they are clearly where Williams' focus lay, results in the other characters simply being less interesting. This issue has less of an impact on the characters in the older generation.

As the addled Mrs. Winemiller, Debra Rodkin skillfully represents an outcome for herself that Alma clearly fears and distances herself from with impatience and petty forms of unkindness that thread in and out her father's outbursts about the cross he's been given to bear. As the Reverend Winemiller, Chuck Munro does not shy away from the erratic cruelty of those outbursts, a choice that lends a dark undertone to his public persona. Mike Rogalski's performance as the Elder Dr. John Buchanan plays in an interesting way against Volkers', as he, too, teases Alma and downplays the conflicts that trouble her, albeit in a more avuncular (but no less patriarchal) way.

It's the characters that are roughly in Alma and Johnny's generation that might have needed a touch more directorial tending, and even that is likely overstatement. As the town busybody, Mrs. Bassett, Hanna Beth Mitchell comes in hot from her first line. It's a bit too big for the in-your-face space and it has a tendency to leave the character with nowhere to go when the stakes of her gossip and social commentary are higher. But even in saying that, Mitchell's sense of comedic timing comes across well and she does click with Zanatta in a quieter moment nearer the end of the play.

As Nellie, Jill Shoemaker plays up the character's girlish energy to maximize the contrast to Alma's taut-nerved restraint. This, too, overflows the space to a certain extent and sometimes makes her dialogue difficult to discern. The early performance does pay off, though, in the charming if painfully awkward scene she shares with Alma near the end of the play.

There's very little in the play for the characters of Rosa (Johnny's sometime lover and the character he looks to as a means of escaping his life before the plays climax), Roger (Alma's acceptable, but utterly uninspiring would-be fianc), or Rosa's father to do. Although Selena Lopez (Rosa), Reid O'Connell (Roger), and Johnny Garcia (Mr. Gonzalez) turn in capable performances, there may be no way of getting around the way these characters lob the issues of racism and classism on to the stage, but don't afford much room to genuinely engage with them.

As Archie Kramer, the traveling salesman who accompanies Alma over the precipice, Reginald Hemphill offers a thought-provoking take on the play's final scene. He is genial and a little awkward. He is undeniably attractive, albeit in a superficial, appropriately transient way. He plays Archie's preoccupation with the question of whether he'll be able to "make good" in his first job in such a believable way that it emphasizes the constant stumbling parade of humans struggling to live.

Summer and Smoke runs through July 31, 2022, at the Reginald Vaughn Theatre, 1106 W. Thorndale, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, visit