Some wag once wrote that men and women want different things: Men want women and women want men. The hero and heroine of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke illustrate a variation on that theme. He wants her body and she wants his soul.
She is Alma Winemiller (Patsy Ferran), an uptight, idealistic, neurotic, sexually repressed minister’s daughter. He is John Buchanan (Matthew Needham) a dissolute, promiscuous young doctor who lives next door to her. The setting is a small town in the Deep South, summer of 1916. There is no plot of any consequence, and the fulcrum on which the play pivots is Alma’s frustrating attempts to imbue John, whom she has loved since childhood, with a spiritual and moral awareness of which he is completely devoid. He, in turn, is equally frustrated in his attempts to educate her about life and sex. At one point, to rub her nose in reality, he shows her a graphic anatomy chart including reproductive organs. Alma is not convinced; what’s not shown, she points out, is the soul.
Yet, through a process of theatrical osmosis, Alma morphs into John, and he into Alma. The play ends with John, having found a younger marriageable woman, discovering spiritual peace of mind, while Alma, totally against her puritanical upbringing, offers herself to him physically. As she puts it, “The tables have turned with a vengeance.” But it’s too late for both of them.
Initially, the fear Alma and John have in capitulating to each other’s desires provides the play with its much-needed conflict. It’s a fascinating clash between the sacred and the profane, allowing Williams to dissect two sides of the human condition. And he does so with some wonderful lyrical flourishes, some heavy-handed symbolism (Alma’s name, we’re incessantly told, is Spanish for “soul”) and even some blatant melodrama involving a murder.
When Summer and Smoke premiered on Broadway in 1948 in a production Williams hated, it received mainly adverse reviews, with one critic calling it “a pretentious and amateurish bore.” A 1952 Off-Broadway revival redressed the critical balance, and although the play falls short of the perfection of The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire (both of which preceded it), it’s certainly worth reviving.
Though Williams was very specific about the set he required, director Rebecca Frecknall and her designer Tom Scutt have ignored his wishes completely. Gone are any sense of period and location – especially the play’s symbolic Angel Fountain, which provides the village with its pure drinking water. Visual realism is abandoned and, in an emphatic reference to the work of directors John Doyle and Ivo von Hove, chairs take the place of props, everyone goes barefoot, and the vast expanse of blue sky Williams demands in his text has been replaced by a pit-like empty space framed by nine upright pianos on which are perched working metronomes.
With no distracting scenic impediments, the pain, the longing and the anguish at the heart of the play certainly resonate. At the same time, there were moments I felt I was watching a rehearsal on a bare stage.
If the production and some of the emendations and additions to the script could be considered controversial, Ferran’s Alma is a triumph. Though a tad idiomatic and over histrionic at times, it has the potential, as the run progresses, to develop into a truly outstanding performance. Her gradual sexual awakening (albeit too late for the happiness she yearns) and the resignation to her fate as she surrenders her virginity to a young travelling salesman is sensitively calibrated and will break your heart.
As is usual with Williams, the male protagonist is harder to cast. Needham is personable enough as Buchanan (do the jeans he wears throughout have to be quite so unflatteringly baggy?), but for maximum effect you need the charisma of a young Marlon Brando or Paul Newman. An impossible ask.
Multi-casting in the smaller roles further and deliberately alienates the play from any sense of realism. Anjana Vasan plays an indistinguishable quartet of young women. Nancy Crane is Alma’s demented mother as well as a local gossip. Forbes Masson doubles as both John and Alma’s father. While I still haven’t seen a truly brilliant production of this problematic play, I doubt whether I’ll see a better Alma than Patsy Ferran.