Summer and Smoke

Tlaloc Rivas's realization of Tennessee Williams's play Summer and Smoke is incisive and moving; there are only a few performances left and if you're a fan of great American drama I highly recommend that you see it. Rivas has said that he wanted to approach this play, first seen on Broadway some 60 years ago, as if it were new, or at least a newly discovered work; this he has done, along with his excellent collaborators, who have shone light on some of the less appreciated aspects of this less familiar work by one of America's finest playwrights.

The story of Summer and Smoke concerns Alma Winemiller, the daughter of a small town (Glorious Hill, Mississippi) rector and his wife. It is 1910. Alma's mother suffered some kind of emotional/mental breakdown while Alma was still in high school, and now Alma serves as her father's hostess, housekeeper, and secretary; her mother, she says pointedly, has robbed Alma of her youth.

No such robbery has occurred for her neighbor John Buchanan, however; John, son of the town doctor and a graduate of Johns Hopkins Medical School himself, is busy sowing as many wild oats as possible. He spends his nights at Moon Lake Casino, a disreputable establishment run by a Mexican named Gonzalez. Rosa, daughter of Gonzalez, is aggressively wooing John, and for reasons that are never entirely clear (but that seem to have to do with subconscious rebellion against his father and against the values that Alma represents), John gives himself over to Rosa, drink, and the cockfights at Moon Lake.

Alma, of course, is in love with John, but she's unable to allow her repressed nature to act on the passion she feels. John simply worships Alma, viewing her as an angel, like the one that Williams has symbolically placed in the center of the fountain in the town park. The play traces Alma's awakening to her feelings and John's maturation into his.

It's a lovely play, filled with Williams's remarkable poetic dialogue and sprinkled liberally with the quietly profound observations that make Williams's work so potent. I was particularly struck by this one, offered by Alma almost in passing, yet seeming so fundamental to both her character and the playwright's: "Most of us have no choice but to lead useless lives!" The dichotomy between body and soul, between sex and love, takes on an unexpected shape in the world of Summer and Smoke: Alma is a music teacher; John a physician. Williams wants us to ponder whether Alma's assessment is correct, I think.

Rivas stages the play with simplicity, on a nearly bare stage with minimal furniture and props; the actors surround the action, seated in wooden chairs around the perimeter of the playing area when not in a scene. This concept highlights one of the themes of the play that I don't think is often emphasized, namely the small-mindedness of Glorious Hill and countless American towns like it. The citizens of Alma and John's town are witnesses to and eavesdroppers upon their relationship and struggle; they, too, are judging whether the physical or the spiritual deserves to win the contest.

The twelve-member ensemble contribute beautifully crafted performances to the production, with several of those in smaller roles making significant impressions: Clyde Kelley as Alma's stern, hard father; Melodie Wolford as her enigmatic, addled mother; Stu Richel as John's wise and upright father; Jessica Angleskhan as fiery, determined Rosa Gonzalez; and Harry Barandes as Alma's bland suitor Roger Doremus all stand out in the company. Anchoring the production are Mary Sheridan as Alma and Michael Frederic as John. Sheridan gives us a startlingly strong and single-minded Alma, in pursuit of a thing she doesn't fully understand and that she is pretty sure she's not supposed to want or allowed to have; it's a heart-rending portrayal of a woman not so much repressed as catastrophically defeated by mores she's let herself buy into without believing or trusting in them. And Frederic shows us another of Williams's golden boys bent on self-destruction as a kind of willful attack on the world's mendacity.

Because Summer and Smoke is nowhere near so frequently presented as the major Williams's works, this revival is especially enlightening and edifying: Rivas and the producers, Big Sky Theatre Company, are giving us fresh insight into a play that brims with intelligence and raw emotion. Fans of Williams and, indeed, anyone interested in understanding something more of the human condition are advised to catch this production before it disappears.