theater review

Theater Review: Summer and Smoke Has That ‘Immaterial Something’

From Summer and Smoke, at Classic Stage. Photo: Carol Rosegg

“I’m afraid we have a bad connection,” says the doctor’s son to the preacher’s daughter. They’re speaking over the telephone, but the interference they’re battling isn’t really technological but spiritual. Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke — now in a spare, intelligent, deeply affecting production by Transport Group at Classic Stage Company — is a story of the most troubled connection in a modern America still in the grip of its puritanical roots: the uneasy link between body and soul. Being by Williams, the play is verbally lush and at times symbolic to the point of overripeness, but director Jack Cummings III’s light, exacting touch both lifts and elucidates the text. Its tale of wrenching transformations over the course of one humid southern summer feels newly piercing, and the performance of its lead, the stellar Marin Ireland, is an exquisite study in awakening. In Ireland’s hands, Alma Winemiller — the nervous, lace-clad young singing teacher living in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, in 1916 — seems to leap forward in time. She becomes a devastating mirror for plenty of contemporary young women still struggling to exorcise shame, acknowledge desire, and find a place in the whole roiling mess of sex and love for that thing called the soul.

“My name is Alma and Alma is Spanish for soul,” she says to the doctor’s son, whose name is John Buchanan, in the play’s prologue. It’s not exactly subtle, but then again, Alma and John are only 10 years old at this point. They’re standing near the fountain in the center of Glorious Hill, a kneeling angel whose carved name, Eternity, has faded in the stone. “You can’t make it out with your eyes,” Alma tells the skeptical John, “You have to read it with your fingers.” It’s a beautiful paradox: Right away, though Williams links Alma with the spiritual world and John with the physical, he has her encourage a moment of touch, a sensual act meant to access something sacred. The line between soul and body, between divinity and desire, is blurrier than the world these children inhabit would like it to be. For all her delicacy, Alma already senses that blur, though she’s not yet awake to it.

Cummings stages Williams’s prologue with Ireland and the excellent Nathan Darrow, as John Buchanan — surly and searching — playing their younger selves. The stage is empty save for a black-and-white framed photograph of a stone angel propped on a wooden easel. Williams devotes several pages of script to suggestions for the visual design of his play — from projected clouds and constellations to floating ivy-covered window frames — and it’s a relief upon entering the intimate three-sided space at CSC to see that Cummings and his scenic designer, Dane Laffrey, haven’t followed any of them. Laffrey gives us only a raised white rectangular floor and a low-hanging white rectangular ceiling: a wall-less box that evokes both spartan purity and, despite its open sides, claustrophobia. R. Lee Kennedy’s lights remain low, keeping Ireland and Darrow in shadow as they navigate this blank expanse.

Physically, the actors do not perform the teasing meeting of two young children but instead pace slowly around the edges of the white floor, their gestures slow, their eyes downturned. Cummings is following Williams’s own earlier directions from The Glass Menagerie on creating a memory play: “It is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” In this production the prologue is no twee epigraph but Alma’s memory. As she slips out of a kiss from the young John — leaving him suspended for a moment and observing the murky tableau with quiet, fascinated distance — the play is cemented even more firmly than usual as hers. Only Alma will brush up against the veil at the edges of her story, becoming more and more aware of it, more and more ready to slice through it and join us on the other side.

Cummings knows how little fuss-and-stuff a richly layered piece of writing needs to work on stage. Last year, he and David Greenspan turned Eugene O’Neill’s sprawling psychological melodrama Strange Interlude into a stunning solo show: six hours of text, a few simple changes of scene, one body, one voice. Summer and Smoke also profits from the director’s penchant for stripping away theatrical excess. The play can be purple, so Cummings keeps the space empty and the performances sharp. He and his ensemble make Williams’s sometimes cloying language feel pointed and necessary. The actors use no props, save for a few chairs, and yet Cummings doesn’t push them to mime the objects they mention. Talking on a phone or wearing a hat don’t require elaborate physical illustrations. The connections between performers — and the struggles for connection between characters — are what matter, and the play’s elegant staging is a lesson in trimming the fat.

There’s no hiding in such a space, and in the stark white box we can hear refrains of Williams’s play ring clearly. Alma and John, soul and body, grow up next door to each other, and Summer and Smoke tracks the tumultuous course of a summer in their mid-20s when the disparate pair get “so close [they] almost breathe together.” They’re a product of their fathers — Alma’s a rigid minister she dutifully supports and John’s a stern doctor he tries to defy — and, in a less obvious way, of their mothers too. John’s died when he was young: “They made me go in the room where my mother was dying and she caught hold of my hand and wouldn’t let go — and so I screamed and hit her,” he tells Alma in the prologue. For all his impetuous rakishness as an adult, John is full of fear. That early image of mortality — of the ugliness and possible meaninglessness of the human machine — haunts him as he pursues a life of mortal pleasures — gambling, booze, and, of course, sex. “It’s yet to be proven that anyone on this earth is crowned with so much glory as the one that uses his senses to get all he can in the way of… satisfaction,” he says to Alma later. Alma, meanwhile, has grown up believing in “the everlasting struggle and aspiration for something more than our human limits have placed in our reach” — and in this production at least, the courage she carries beneath her prim, nervous exterior might in fact stem from her mother.

The riveting Barbara Walsh’s Mrs. Winemiller is one of this Summer and Smoke’s brilliant surprises. Williams describes her as “a spoiled selfish girl who evaded the responsibilities of later life by slipping into a state of perverse childishness,” and the character can easily be played as a mentally vacant overgrown kid with a mean streak, demanding ice cream, stealing from local stores, and mocking her daughter’s voice (“I have sometimes been accused of having a put-on accent by people who approve of good diction!” Alma sniffs to John, and Ireland nails her heightened idiom, which is somehow both affected and sincere). But Cummings and Walsh have discovered something different in Alma’s mother: Walsh — in a black dress that smartly echoes the shape of Ireland’s softer, light gray one (the simple, clever costumes are by Kathryn Rohe) — is sharp-eyed and watchful. She’s no village idiot, but a woman who woke up one day to the idiocy of her village and said, “Screw this! I’m out.” Her seeming dementia is a kind of defiance. Twice during the play, the character cries out “Fight, fight!” in moments when Alma’s proper, forbearing surface gets ruffled. The words might be a taunt, like a child egging on playground violence, but coming from Walsh they’re a command. She’s suddenly brutally lucid, urging her daughter to do what she couldn’t figure out how to in order to survive.

Because Alma is headed toward a crisis. During the play’s hot, heavy summer, she grows more and more enamored with John, defending him against the community’s judgment as his behavior gets more debauched. The pair are engaged in an ongoing argument, Alma in favor of reaching up — like a “Gothic cathedral” for “something beyond attainment” — and John in favor of reaching out, of collecting worldly experience and feeding temporal desires. At one point he forces her to look at a doctor’s chart of the human anatomy — the stone angel’s symbolic counterpoint and the production’s only other real object — and roughly points out the locations of human hunger: “the sex,” the belly, and the brain. “I’ve fed all three,” he growls bitterly, “You’ve fed none.

Darrow is delivering a tough, vulnerable performance. We can see what Alma loves about him and what she despises, and we suffer with her as he flails about in selfishness and uncertainty. John spends his money and his nights at Moon Lake Casino, a gambling house where he meets the dancer Rosa Gonzalez, whose father runs the seedy establishment. In a red dress with a flower in her hair, Rosa mostly walks through the play as a symbol of everything Alma isn’t on the outside. Though the striking Elena Hurst does admirable work filling out Rosa’s humanity, Williams’s dependence on a pair of Mexican characters to represent all that’s carnal, impulsive, and earthy can feel dated and stereotypical. Papa Gonzalez (the tipsy, swaggering Gerardo Rodriguez) especially is little more than an engine of plot, the straw that ultimately breaks the back of John’s bad behavior and sends both him and Alma into painful periods of metamorphosis.

But then again, Williams was living with his muse and lover, the Mexican-born Pancho Rodriguez, while writing Summer and Smoke, and while we might wince today at what feels like the stereotype of tempestuous “Latin” passion, Williams was trying to make a complex argument for an embrace of life that held such passion as sacred as prayer. In the play’s final third, we watch Alma fall into a kind of sickness: Ireland’s hair comes down and she curls up bare-shouldered and barefoot on the stage. Eventually, she covers up not in her gray dress, but in a wine-dark floor-length velvet coat originally worn onto the stage by her mother. Notably, Mrs. Winemiller doesn’t abuse her daughter in her seeming illness, but only watches unblinking. Her father frets and criticizes: “What am I going to tell people who ask about you?” he grumbles. “Tell them I’ve changed,” says Alma with ominous steadiness, “and you’re waiting to see in what way.”

Marin Ireland is utterly thrilling as the heart of Cummings’s production. She’s both a masterful technician and an actor whose emotional presence feels so alive it’s almost dangerous. More still, she’s stealthily hilarious. Summer and Smoke isn’t usually billed as a comedy, but thanks to Ireland’s unerring comic touch — and to the wonderful supporting work of Tina Johnson, Jonathan Spivey, Glenna Brucken, and Ryan Spahn as the eccentric members of Alma’s ill-fated “little club” of local intellectuals — the play is filled with jolts of humor. Listen to Ireland’s distracted replies when a dopey would-be suitor (Spivey) shows her a scrapbook full of pictures of his mother, or to her bone-dry description of why things haven’t exactly worked out for her with boys in the past: “With each one there was a desert between us,” she tells John, and when he asks what she means by a desert, she cracks the audience up with what could be a soppy line. “Oh — wide, wide stretches of uninhabitable ground,” she says, with no iota of wistfulness. Ireland’s Alma, even at her most scattered and vulnerable, is on some level always aware of her own doubleness, of the change that’s coming, the “Doppelgänger” — to use John’s teasing phrase — within her that’s gradually coming to consciousness.

And that consciousness is heartbreaking. After a tragedy, Alma and John are both altered permanently, but Alma’s transformation is a complex, ongoing awakening, while John’s is a kind of going back to sleep. “I’ve come around to your way of thinking,” he tells Alma, trying to explain that he now believes in that “immaterial something” she tried to make a case for. But John’s newfound respect for the soul takes traditional form: He’ll clean up his act and “[settle] with life on fairly acceptable terms,” while Alma will move past tradition, past propriety, primness, and respect. It’s a wrenching case of ships passing in the night, and while it leaves John safely harbored in society, it strands Alma in open water, full of desires and revelations that the world will try to disgrace. Williams was fresh off A Streetcar Named Desire when he wrote Summer and Smoke in 1948, and in the suspended, opened-up Alma of the play’s ending we can see a kind of after-the-fact spiritual prequel to Blanche. In Ireland’s gorgeous performance, we can also see a hungry modern woman grappling with a world that seems to reward men both for their prodigality and for their return to the flock. Meanwhile, a woman walks tentatively forward through the smoke, seeking a path free from shame, a path toward a more perfect union of body and soul.

Summer and Smoke is at Classic Stage Company through May 20.

Theater: Summer and Smoke Has That ‘Immaterial Something’