Nathan Darrow, Marin Ireland
Photo: Carol Rosegg
By Fern Siegel
dichotomy of human nature — the sacred and profane — fascinated Tennessee
Williams, who routinely employed elements of Southern Gothic to explore
dysfunctional people ruined by inner demons.
themes are evident in Summer and Smoke, now at the Classic Stage
Company, in an interesting, stripped-down coproduction with the Transport
Company. Set in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, from the turn of the century through 1916, it chronicles the fractured
romance between Alma, a minister’s daughter (Marin Ireland), repelled
and attracted to John, the troubled neighborhood doctor (Nathan Darrow).
wrestle with societal expectations.
Alma longs to reach “up
to something beyond attainment.” Her name, made clear in the play, means “soul”
in Spanish. Conversely, John is a dissolute sensualist, represented by a
soulless anatomy chart, and eager to tear her down. (Alma is enamored of the
image of an angel statue, titled Eternity.) Thus, the cosmic battle begins.
The play premiered on Broadway in 1948, and Williams’ signature
themes are underscored by the couple’s torturous exchanges.
Alma is the more
interesting character, as she veers between her passion for literature and art
and her conflicted love for John. She is also the sacrificial lamb of a
shattered family. Given her mother’s (a strong Barbara Walsh) apparent madness,
Alma is forced to take on her role.
Ireland, T. Ryder Smith and Barbara Walsh Photo: Carol Rosegg
father (Phillip Clark), a physician, wants his son to follow in his respectable
footsteps, only to be disappointed by his gambling and drunken ways,
represented by his nights at the Moon Lake Casino to see Rosa (Elena Hurst).
Assailing John’s weaknesses, he decries “wasters, drunks and lechers” and
consigns John to the slag heap of humanity.
followed Williams’ triumphs of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass
Menagerie, which catapulted the playwright to fame. It also explores the
tensions between parents and children, his theatrical specialty.
telling, in Alma’s aspirational yearnings, we see shades of Blanche DuBois, who
tragically aims for artistic ideals, and, to a lesser degree, the limitations
of Menagerie’s Laura. Dr. John possesses some of the cruder aspects of
Stanley Kowalski and predates Suddenly, Last Summer’s dissolute
Sebastian Venable, a pampered man devoured by his carnal excesses.
in their intense moments, John initially demeans Alma for her civilized
impulses. (“I am mystified by unprovoked malice,” she responds ruefully.) The
ultimate insult: She is judged by a man who himself is wanting! Yet their
tug-of-war has a surprising outcome.
Ireland delivers a standout performance, adept at illustrating the tensions —
internal and external — that consume and exasperate her character. Alma
runs the gamut from fragile to ferocious, aided by a mother who screams “fight”
whenever her minister father (T. Ryder Smith) insists on acquiescence. Has she
learned the only way to escape suffocating connubial duties is to appear out of
does not equal Ireland’s nuanced efforts, though there are genuinely moving
scenes between them, and even the occasional hint of chemistry.
directorial choices by Jack Cummings III for the revival are minimalist. A bare
stage, two images and a few chairs suffice. In fact, he has his actors mime
almost every action, from eating an ice cream cone to opening a window, to
showcase the text.
Darrow, Elena Hurst, Gerardo Rodriguez Photo: Carol Rosegg
The creative team includes set design by Dane Laffrey, costume
design by Kathryn Rohe, lighting design by R. Lee Kennedy and sound design by
Walter Trarbach. Michael John LaChiusa composed original music.
Williams’ fans, Summer and Smoke is touching. Though a less notable
addition to his oeuvre, it does reflect his thematic obsessions. Still, compelling scenes and a capable ensemble
grip our attention. But it is a calibrated Ireland who deserves the
shout out this round.
Summer and Smoke
CSC Repertory Theater, 136 East
13 St. Manhattan (Extended through May 25)
For tickets visit: http://www.classicstage.org/shows/2018/04/summer-and-smoke/
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes