Virginia Rep’s ‘Summer and Smoke’ is a masterful production of a troubled play
After becoming the toast of Broadway with the staging of A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams went to work on his next play, Summer and Smoke. Almost as soon as Williams finished the play, he realized that it was too diffuse, murkily metaphysical, and melodramatic. He ripped into the script, abandoning subplots and allowing the poetic tragedy of his heroine to emerge and to flower.
But this massive rewrite of Summer and Smoke was finished too late to use as a replacement—rehearsals for the London production were well under way—so the original play was doomed to hold the stage and, predictably, to fail. The rewrite was retitled as Eccentricities of a Nightingale. By the time he released Eccentricities, Williams’ star was on the wane and the play succumbed to disinterest. It has been thankfully revived in the years since and, for me, is the gem he was looking for when he originally sat down to write Alma’s tale.
Bruce Miller, Artistic Director of Virginia Rep for 40 years chose Summer and Smoke to be his last directorial effort before stepping down. He honors Summer and Smoke as the introductory script that a group of friends decided to read when they opened their newly established playhouse at Hanover Tavern. To honor the production, Mr. Miller recreates and reimagines that production.
Even though Essentricities is a much better play, Summer and Smoke is still pure Southern Gothic Tennessee Williams.
The play takes place in turn of the century Mississippi. The plot concerns Miss Alma, an overly proper and overly nervous Southern spinster who lives with her harsh clergyman father and her mentally ill mother. She lives next door to young Dr. John who has just returned home from medical school to practice with his father. The stodgy Alma has been in a suppressed love and lust fantasy with the free spirited John ever since they were children.
We find out that John is more than carefree, he is self-destructive. He is addicted to alcohol and risky sexual behavior. Despite her own nervous condition, Alma makes excuses to spend time with him. Each episode ends badly with Alma resisting John’s boozy flirtations. John takes up with a low class Mexican tart in furtherance of his need for raw sexuality and risky personal behavior (no stereotypes there).
Alma seeks the aid of John’s father when she learns John intends to marry his tart. The tart’s father shoots John’s father in a pretty far-fetched scene. Of course this tragedy sobers John who does a 180, loses the tart and finds respectability.
By this time Alma, having been rejected and afraid of dying alone cloisters herself in her father’s house and refuses to see John for months. We can assume she has had a nervous breakdown. When she recovers she is stripped of her good manners and seems to have been philosophically and morally changed. She goes to John and attempts to seduce him, but it is too late. He is now the prim and proper gentleman engaged to a good girl. Their ships have passed in the night and Alma is devastated to the point where she displays risky sexual behavior at the end of the play. The roles have been reversed.
Williams is never clear as to why John is so self-destructive. We know his mother died when he was a boy and can assume his father’s reputation is near impossible to live up to. Whether this justifies his behavior is speculative. Williams abandons John’s dilemma in Eccentricities but finally finds the answer to this character problem in his Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. We know why Brick self-destructs. We understand it is a mixture of repressed homosexuality and the inability to live up to his youthful glory football days.
We’re also are never fully satisfied with why John and Alma just miss being happy together. Their dramatic arcs overshoot each other, leaving both of them unhappy and unfulfilled. This is also Tennessee Williams’ style. No one goes home happy. But it doesn’t feel completely honest.
The job of making it honest belongs to the actor. Even problematic Williams is rich material to mine and an actor’s delight. And the actors in this production take great delight in playing Williams and as a result they are delightful to watch.
Alexander Sapp is a smart likable actor. I am slightly jarred by seeing him just last month as a singing and dancing frog in the children’s play Croaker at Willow Lawn. This just shows his incredible range.
Despite his likability, Sapp finds layer upon layer to justify John’s descent. His job as an actor is not to answer the question of how John got to where he is but to answer the question of why he goes on. Even if the author is not clear the actor must answer this for himself if he is to give an honest performance. You can see the torment in Sapp’s eyes, the falseness of his put-on drunk-happy demeanor, the pain of knowing he just isn’t worthy of any of it – a decent woman like Alma, his father’s respect or the privilege of having a mother’s love.
Carolyn Demanelis is a wonderful Alma. She is a different Alma than I have seen before. She focuses on a stronger, less fragile and less “eccentric” Alma. It only half works. While I liked moments of that choice, she forgoes any indication of an emotional fragility which will lead to her nervous breakdown later in the play. Alma, like Laura in The Glass Menagerie or even Blanche in Streetcar all have a break-ability factor that makes watching them deteriorate very sympathetic and painful to watch. Ms. Demanelis finds the neurotic characteristics to play but they are the second best choice in terms of watching this delicate flower wilt. When she emerges from her house after a long hibernation, it is hard to justify her shift in character without seeing the vestiges of that breakdown.
Director Miller is faithful to the casting choices the original company had to make in those early salad days, which include casting young actors to play older parts, including two teenagers. The re-creation works most of the time.
For his youngish actors who play fathers and other older adults, Director Miller chose two excellent actors who I suspect are either side of 30 anyway.
Thomas Cunningham is a master of speech and dialects (he is a Professor of Voice/Speech at VCU). He plays Alma’s Mississippi clergyman father, the Mexican tart’s gambling hall owner father and a nerdy Literary Society member as well as an offstage voice or two. All done with pitch perfect accents and carefully created stylized performances.
Speaking of Mississippi accents, the cast was uniformly on point. Cunningham, doing double duty as Dialect coach scores here as well.
Charley Raintree is one of the most dependable actors in Richmond. He plays John’s father, various town citizens and the traveling salesman Alma seduces at the final curtain. All believable, all done with little noise but great polish. Although overqualified to be an “extra,” if I needed an actor who could create small gems of character, I would call on Mr. Raintree.
All of the younger actors succeed very well playing their age but not as well playing the older, commonplace people of this Mississippi. Such roles are more difficult as Williams imbues them with the prejudicial, stubborn, gossip filled characteristics that he hates. With one exception. Trace Coles is wickedly spot on as young John. You can see the genesis of all the problems that will plague John in his older years. He also hits the mark as a very awkwardly dull Roger, a very second rate suitor to Alma. This is a young actor to watch.
The November stage is glorified by Rich Mason’s sumptuous scenic design. Resplendent with huge columns, flying buttresses laden with moss, backed by a scrumptious cyclorama painted as a lovely summer’s day. Change the lighting, add stars and it serves as a majestic moon filled night. Simply breathtaking. The centerpiece of the design is a monumental statue of an angel encircled by the town fountain, from which these residents often drink. Obviously nowhere near Flint, Michigan.
The statue of the angel is inscribed by the word “Eternity.” Young Alma and John run their hands over the word as an omen of things to come. Perhaps Williams is telling us that are fates are set for eternity no matter how we proceed. I hope not. That would be sad. And against most people’s better judgement.
Below and to the sides of the monument and town square are Alma’s house to one side, John’s to the other. They are beautifully appointed with stage pieces. The whole design rings true.
I credit Bruce Miller with making the extremely large stage seem intimate. In others hands this personal drama would seem ridiculous on a stage with two-story ceilings and columns. The pace of the production, however, is uncomfortably slow. The grandeur of the set and the time it takes to move around it all contribute to a pace which is already languid.
Mr. Miller has assembled a stellar design team. Most impressive is B.J. Wilkerson’s careful eye in creating mood with light.
There are many examples of how Wilkerson achieves this but one stands out to me. The majestic statue at night is bathed in subtle rippled light that suggests the light is being reflected from the water in the fountain. It glows in subtle blues and greys and turns the ordinary into magic. Bravo, sir.
Sue Griffin’s Gothic clothing is not only accurate but beautiful. I have run out of positive adjectives in this review but if I hadn’t I’d use more of them to describe her work. Alma’s inner life is visually explained by her clothes. The opposite is true for John. The starched white suits he wears is belied by his black behavior.
Bruce Miller is fundamental to the story of modern Richmond theatre. The Kilgores and Ms. McAuley may have been the pioneers, but Mr. Miller with Phil Whiteway are the explorers, the fathers of our local industry. Mr. Miller has been a wonderful administrator of the Virginia Rep legacy. I wish him much success in his future endeavors.
Summer and Smoke runs at VA Rep’s November Theatre now through May 15th. You can scoop tickets here!
Whether the spooky house brings out the worst in the couple or spurs them to scratch at the scabs until the bloody truth is uncovered is a matter of discussion.October 25, 2016
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