By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Since its founding, the mission of the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company (TWTC) has been to tell the stories of New Orleans’ best known playwright in bold and expressive ways. In addition to presenting well known pieces from his repertoire, the company’s two artistic directors, Augustin J. Correro and Nick Shackelford, have endeavored to present several rarely or never before seen works by the playwright or new works inspired by him.
Unlike Williams’ earlier works The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke did not enjoy a very high level of success when it was first produced, closing after just 102 performances. But after it was reworked, Summer and Smoke achieved a moderate level of success with several noted productions in the 1950s and in 1964, a new version of the play, retitled Eccentricities of a Nightingale, received fairly positive response from audiences and critics alike.
Set in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, the action occurs between the turn of the 20th century and the time of innocence before the Great War. The voices of Alma Winemiller and John Buchanan are first heard as children, describing the giant angel fountain that dominates the stage at the Marigny Opera House, where the current TWTC production is being housed. The word E-T-E-R-N-I-T-Y is sculpted into its base, according to the voices of the children.
Alma (Elizabeth McCoy) and John (Justin William Davis) are eventually seen when he throws a firecracker near her, blaming the neighborhood riffraff for the misdeed. Alma is the prim and proper daughter of a minister, while John is a hedonistic physician son of a doctor, who has followed his father’s career path, but lacks direction in life. Like neighboring planets, there is an obvious pull in the two towards each other. But Alma, who reiterates her name means “soul” in Spanish, is desirous of a respectful, intellectual coupling – a meeting of the minds, if you will – while John relishes a torrid affair in which the two could lavish their lustful desires on each other.
The elder Dr. John Buchanan, portrayed by Robert A. Mitchell, is a hard working country doctor, who loves his son deeply, but is disappointed in his choices. “There isn’t any room in the medical profession for wasters, drunkards and lechers. And there isn’t any room in my house for wasters-drunkard-lechers!” he bellows early in the play.
Alma’s life is complicated by the fact that her mother is mentally crippled. A stroke victim (Mia Frost), Mrs. Winemiller is like a child who requires the ever-watchful eye of Alma or her father, the Reverend Winemiller (George Trahanis). In this regard, she has had to assume the duties of the woman of the house, which stifles her ability to experience any meaningful relationship with John or to let down her guard.
Rebuffed in his designs on Alma, the young physician turns his eyes towards Rosa Gonzales, a lusty Mexican immigrant’s daughter, whose family background lacks bearing, but whose body tempts him in ways Alma cannot. Played with verve by Mariola Chalas, Rose is the third part of this love triangle, but given Alma’s intractability, the only two parts that connect are Rose and John.
McCoy’s iciness in dealing with John is punctuated by occasional flashes of desire for him, but on a respectful, platonic level. When John suggests a torrid liaison in a room above the local casino, Alma reacts violently, shouting “You are not a gentleman!”
Perhaps, as Shakespeare suggested, “The lady doth protest too much.”
Williams uses a clever device of an anatomy chart on the wall of his office for the two would-be lovers to express their philosophies. The doctor points out the different organs that work in concert, suggesting the basic animal nature of man. Yet, Alma expresses that nowhere on the chart is a place representative of the “soul,” emblematic of her name. Man is more than his carnal side, she claims. He is very much an ethical and spiritual creature, none of which is represented on that anatomy chart.
Through a series of actions, reactions and other circumstances, Alma and John eventually find themselves taking opposite sides of these philosophical arguments and this is at the crux of Williams’ intent with Summer and Smoke.
Whether we use an anatomy chart or refer to yin and yang, there are both physical and spiritual sides to life that must be acknowledged and, sometimes, kept in check. As Alma copes with her natural desire and John learns to subdue his passion, we see maturity. The couple’s timing goes horribly wrong and Williams’ conceit demonstrates there are forces at play eternal in the heavens that guide our actions and determine our fate.
Supporting players also include Gwendolyne Foxworth as prudish Mrs. Bassett, who is disproving of John and intimidates Alma. Yvette Bourgeois as Nellie Ewell, is one of Alma’s vocal students from an established, well-to-do family. Alma dislikes Mrs. Bassett’s Victorian attitude, but is also dismissive of Nellie, who she feels is a mere child. Trahinis, Frost and Mitchell all do fine work as the parents of the two protagonists. Gil Angelo Anfone plays Alma’s would-be suitor, Roger Doremus, while Matthew Boese plays several minor male characters as well as a Salesman with whom Alma accosts at play’s end.
Technically, the production succeeds on many fronts. Costumes by Grace Smith are well executed. Lighting in the massive Marigny Opera House is always a challenge and lighting director Diane K. Baas does very well in that endeavor. Williams was very specific that the two sides of the stage represent the two differing philosophies of religion and science represented by the Winemiller family on the left and the Buchanans on the right. The massive, dominating angel statue is also ever present and wonderfully rendered by Steve Schepker.
The sound design by Shackleford is very busy throughout the two acts and is sometimes difficult to discern in the vastness of the building’s vaulted ceiling. Playing near the base of the angel statue, the voices of the young Alma and young John (Basil Marie Stanley and Mosiah Chartok) establish the dynamic between the two characters, for example, but the conversation was difficult to follow.
Originally scheduled to be produced two years ago in the initial spring of the COVID pandemic, Summer and Smoke has been on hold until TWTC could find the right time and place to mount. It is understandable that the subject matter was dear to the playwright’s heart, but compared to his previous memory play The Glass Menagerie and his fiery work A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke fails to ignite in the same manner.
It is a solid work, but it is different. Summer and Smoke is a play of missed opportunities and opposite values clashing. It seethes and smolders, but it does not combust.
Summer and Smoke (2 hours and 25 minutes with a 15-minute intermission) continues at the Marigny Opera House, 725 St. Ferdinand Street, where it has been extended now through August 27. All performances are at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, click here.