Thursday, May 3, 2018

2 (2018-2019): Review: SUMMER AND SMOKE (seen May 2, 2018)

“No Smoke, No Fire”

In October 1948, the fact that Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire was still running when his new play, Summer and Smoke, opened on Broadway has been suggested as a principal factor in the latter’s running only for 102 performances. While it shares some thematic ideas with the earlier masterpiece, Summer and Smoke paled in most critical eyes still dazzled by Streetcar’s pyrotechnics.
Jonathan Spivey, Glenna Brucken, Tina Johnson, Ryan Spahn, Marin Ireland, Nathan Darrow. Photo: Carol Rosegg. 
Only a handful of critics wholeheartedly lauded it and it had to wait for a renowned Off-Broadway 1952 revival at the Circle in the Square starring Geraldine Page as Alma Winemiller before its artistic stature was more widely recognized. (Page reprised the role in the 1961 film.) Williams continued to polish the script in later years, creating a revised version called Eccentricities of a Nightingale, published in 1965 and given its stage debut in Surrey, England, 1967.

It’s very likely, though, that, if Summer and Smoke’s lugubrious current Off-Broadway revival, directed by Jack Cummings III, were its premiere, it would suffer a fate worse than that of the original. Cummings, whose Transport Group has collaborated with the CSC on this production, shares an aesthetic not unlike that of CSC artistic director John Doyle of paring shows down to their minimum. Cummings says that the point of his sometimes daringly reconceiving familiar plays is to highlight the actors’ work, as in his memorable 2014 version of I Remember Mama. In Summer and Smoke, though, he seriously misfires.

The revival has trimmed the play to a two and a half hour, one-intermission, run time. It’s set in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, in 1916, and circles around the conflict between the spirit and the flesh. Williams calls for the fountain statue of the Angel of Eternity to be set between the house of the puritanical Reverend Winemiller (T. Ryder Smith) and his mentally ill wife (Barbara Walsh) and that of Dr. John Buchanan, Sr. (Phillip Clark).

The action concerns the relationship of the preacher’s timorous daughter, Alma (Marin Ireland), whose name means “soul,” and the doctor’s good-looking son, John (Nathan Darrow); they have been friends since childhood. Alma is a neurotic old maid and John a dissolute medical student. Alma seeks to reconcile her differences with John by getting him to accept her spirituality but he can see only man’s fleshly attributes, as symbolized by his anatomy chart.

Circumstances growing out of John’s lifestyle lead to the killing of his father and his discovering a spiritually fulfilling path. Alma, sexually awakened by her affair with John, who has married someone else, turns to a traveling salesman to satisfy her needs. As played here, Alma, her hair disheveled and her body wrapped in a long, purple robe, seems on the brink of madness, much like Blanche at the end of Streetcar.
Marin Ireland. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As in other Williams plays, the playwright relies on symbolism, moody musical underscoring, poetic dialogue, sexual preoccupations, a frustrated Southern belle, and the conflict between morality and amorality. 

Cummings, perhaps inspired by the play’s pre-Broadway, scantily designed production at Margo Jones’s famous Dallas theatre-in-the-round, stages it around three sides of a rectangle. But he goes much further in simplifying its appearance on Dane Laffrey’s set of little more than a raised, white, rectangular platform over which hangs a white ceiling of the same dimensions.

The furniture, often shifted by the cast, consists entirely of six old-fashioned, ornately-carved, straight-backed, dining-room chairs. Instead of a fountain statue there’s a painting of one set on a formal easel at one end of the platform; across the space is the competing symbol of John’s anatomy painting, on its own easel.  
Marin Ireland. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Not only are chairs asked to serve whatever needs the play requires, there also are almost no props. When water from the fountain is needed, the actors mime cupping it in their hands, just as actors mime licking an ice cream cone, eating food, carrying trays, and so on.
Marin Ireland, T. Ryder Smith, Barbara Walsh. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
However, Cummings isn’t consistent: when Papa Gonzalez (Gerardo Rodriguez) shoots old Dr. Buchanan, a real gun materializes for the deed. The lame Buchanan gets to use a real cane but when he’s shot, it lies there until Ireland, stepping out of character, picks it up and walks off with it. And I believe I noted an actual, not mimed, pill packet used by Alma late in the play.
Hannah Elless, Marin Ireland. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Removing all traces of traditional investiture and treating the play as if it were a cousin of the noh theatre completely deprives it of all-important atmosphere (albeit John Michael LaChiusa’s music occasionally offers some of that) and specificity of locale, even minimally, including the difference between interiors and exteriors. Scenes blend into one another with barely any distinct lighting shifts from designer R. Lee Kennedy, creating vague transitions and doing a serious disservice to the narrative and the characters’ evolutions. Too often it’s simply impossible to know where the action is taking place, as if place had nothing to do with the playwright’s intentions at all.
Marin Ireland, Nathan Darrow. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
If the scenery is to be stripped to such basics, one might ask, why not do the same for the costumes by having everyone dressed in nondescript clothing lacking period details? Why, in fact, not have the actors simply present the play as a staged reading, with occasional infusions of movement for visual interest?
Marin Ireland, Nathan Darrow. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Kathryn Rohe has provided more-or-less period clothing although the actors retain contemporary hairstyles. That, however, isn’t enough to help them create believable, multidimensional characters while being, essentially, suspended in white space. If Cummings wants to focus on the actors, he has an awfully strange way of helping them.

Summer and Smoke is a relatively eventless play, depending heavily on Williams’s gift for Southern gothic characters and poetic dialogue, much of it in loquacious, two-character scenes between Alma and John. As Alma, the usually exciting Marin Ireland does a lot of acting, with numerous emotional transitions, but fails to conjure up the image of a wounded, soulful woman devolving into a creature of the flesh. The opposite fails to happen for the handsome, white-suited Nathan Darrow’s John. Neither brings the necessary romantic charisma to their tonally monotonous relationship.
Nathan Darrow, Marin Ireland. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The uneven supporting cast is mildly satisfactory but, hampered by Cummings's approach and the lack of a compelling Alma and John, it's simply not strong enough to sustain interest in this doleful revival. Judging by the attitudes of several patrons visible across the stage from me, perhaps a more suitable title than Summer and Smoke would be “Slumber and Slump.”


Classic Stage Company (CSC)
136 E. 13th St., NYC
Through May 20