Why has Summer and Smoke been produced less often in New York than almost any other Tennessee Williams play? (Since premiering in 1948, its only Broadway revival was a forgettable one in 1996). It’s a good question. Perhaps it’s because this tale of an almost-romance between Alma Winemiller, a somewhat flighty and hysterical minister’s daughter, and John Buchanan Jr, a handsome young doctor with a wild streak and a troubled soul, visits some of the same territory (geographical and otherwise) as A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but just not always as believably or astutely as those superior plays.
Or is the problem simply that no director has ever found just the right people to fill these difficult roles? (True, the amazing Geraldine Page played Alma to perfection in the 1961 film version, but she was always in a class by herself.) If it’s the latter case, the talented director Jack Cummings III has made the puzzle pieces fit completely in his often-mesmerizing revival, now at Classic Stage Company (co-produced by Transport Group). Even this early in the new theater season, it’s hard to imagine we will see many better performances in the next 12 months than Marin Ireland and Nathan Darrow.
Ireland (a former Obie winner and Tony Award nominee) is sheer perfection as Alma, capturing the many contradictions of this complex soul: passionate yet sexually repressed, strong willed yet extremely vulnerable, wise yet naïve. Alma sometimes transforms from second to second, yet we must always be aware these multiple qualities all live within her at every moment. It’s a less-than-easy feat to pull off, but Ireland makes Alma’s sudden shifts in personality feel as naturally changeable as the Southern weather.
She’s well matched by Darrow, whose often lascivious and louche outward behavior never fully hides his inner gentleman, which is evident not just by his constant wearing of beautiful white linen suits (provided by Kathryn Rohe), but by his courtly behavior towards Alma (calling her “Miss Alma”) and reticence to fully engage with her on a physical level. As in many of Williams’ works, it’s the male who is truly the weaker (and more pitiable) sex.
Given such strong anchors, one wishes everything and everyone on stage were completely ship-shape. Alas, Cummings has made a few extremely distracting missteps that detract from his triumphs. First and foremost, while Williams stated in his stage directions that the work did not require realistic sets, the almost complete lack of scenery and the constant use of miming (as if there were no budget for props) can make the evening feel like you’re watching an acting class rather than a full-fledged production.
Secondly, using Ireland and Darrow to play their childhood selves in the play’s prologue – which is meant to introduce us to the fact that Alma and John had a connection of sorts even way back then – may lead to confusion among some audience members, who won’t realize the work’s first scene takes place more than a decade before its second one.
And while the supporting players are not of the same prominence as in some of Williams’ other works, the unevenness of the rest of the cast is a bit surprising. The wonderful Barbara Walsh (who happens to be Mrs. Cummings) makes a three-course meal out of the relatively small role of Alma’s spiteful and unbalanced mother, and Tina Johnson is simply delicious as the gossipy know-it-all Mrs. Bassett.
Conversely, few of the other actors (including the usually excellent T. Ryder Smith) manage to make much of an impression. Moreover, while Hannah Elless acts the role of Alma’s cheerful vocal student, Nellie Ewell, with suitable aplomb, she’s far too mature looking to pass as a teenager (which is extremely vital for the play’s ending to land with its full effect).
Still, the production’s flaws aside, one’s chances to see this striking work, especially with such magnificent lead performances, don’t come along every summer (or every year or every decade). So don’t let your chance drift away like a puff of smoke.