Summer and Smoke
Time Out says
Theater review by Helen Shaw
The 1952 New York revival of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke changed the city. Steaming with repressed emotion, gleaming like a jewel at the intimate Circle in the Square, Williams’s 1948 melodrama launched the Off Broadway movement, a fertile zone where commercial instincts and artistic ambition could intermingle productively. Transport Group and Classic Stage Company's exquisite version is strong enough to power a rocket into orbit—and that’s without mentioning the gigantic performance at its center. Marin Ireland plays Alma Winemiller as though the part had been written for her, and as though it had been written yesterday; her Alma is at once radiant and frightening, as heart-stopping as a painting that looks up and catches your eye.
Dane Laffrey’s cantilevered white roof-and-floor set looks like a tomb with the lid lowering into place; the audience sits on three sides of it, never more than five rows away from the action. A picture of a stone angel stands on an easel, and it takes nothing more to put us in the turn-of-the-century Mississippi Delta. The plot is barely a whisper: Alma is hectically in love with rake-next-door John (Nathan Darrow, also superb), the worst man in the world for an anxious, slightly prudish girl. Her antic brain tries to entertain itself amid a stifling intellectual circle (most hilariously the tart Tina Johnson), but her loneliness makes her awkward and bossy and strange. John’s medical background and swinging moral compass let him make excuses for the torments he puts her through—but while he claims objectivity and rationality, he’s a bad boy toying with a fly all the same. The show is a painful dance between the two.
There are awkward stretches: Williams includes a nasty bit of “Mexicans are so passionate, no?” racism, and there’s a tendency in the final act to discuss things we’ve already seen. These are the drawbacks of a 1948 play, and the production doesn’t fix them. But elsewhere the revival is grand. Director Jack Cummings III has stripped away a lot; people mime props, and when a man moves his hand over Alma’s hair, she mentions a veil that none of us can see. It works because Williams’s tale is full of unseen elements: the wind that stirs Glorious Hill; the morals that keep Alma skittering out of John’s hands; John’s own dazzlement, which makes him want to have Alma and hurt her at the same time. Cummings has taken away the heavy stuff of production so we can focus on—and have our hearts broken by—all those invisible shimmering things. And in fact the show does cling to you, hanging around you like a haze even once you’re blocks away.
Classic Stage Company (Off Broadway). By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Jack Cummings III. With Marin Ireland, Nathan Darrow. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.