BWW Review: SUMMER AND SMOKE Sizzles at The Classics Theatre Project
The letters of Tennessee Williams reveal a split soul. Shortly after moving to New Orleans in the early 1930s, he wrote to his mother about how he hoped to get a job with the WPA, using his skill and talent to better the nation rather than to merely make ends meet. Immediately afterward, Williams wrote to a close friend that he had "entertained" a fleet of Portuguese sailors at his French Quarter apartment, speaking of his private life in a way that he rarely shared with others. These letters show the types of conflicts that would haunt most of his major works: public vs. private, sublime vs. sensual, transcendent vs. corrupted.
This conflict clearly lies at the heart of one of his lesser known but equally moving plays, SUMMER AND SMOKE. Though not one of Williams's more popular works, one would never know it after seeing The Classics Theatre Project's current production. Under the keen direction of Emily Scott Banks, this newest offering from TCTP endows the play with an air of intimacy that is both thrilling and heartbreaking. The play runs through June 22 at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park.
Originally produced and directed in Dallas by Margo Jones before a Broadway premiere in 1948, SUMMER AND SMOKE tells the story of two lovestruck young adults whose core differences seem to prevent them from developing a stable relationship. Alma Winemiller, the preacher's daughter, believes in the transcendent nature of the soul but still finds herself drawn to John Buchanan Jr., the town doctor's son who runs through women more quickly than he runs through hands at a poker table. The two find themselves intertwined in each other's lives over the years, and each tries to get the other to change the way they see the world. Because this is a Williams play, tragedy strikes, sending Alma and John toward a future that neither ever anticipated.
Banks uses the tight confines of the Margo Jones Theatre to great effect in her production, recognizing that nearly every movement from the actors will be noticed by audience members seated around the simple but not simplistic set. John and his adoring women, including Alma, can illustrate their attraction by drawing as close to one another as possible, which makes their later separation feel like an ocean has opened up between them. Every action on the part of the actors feels both deliberate yet spontaneous, giving the play a naturalness that can be hard to achieve in Williams's dreamlike dramas.
The play is populated by a lively ensemble of townspeople, and each of the actors imbues their various parts with fun and enticing quirks without ever turning the characters into caricatures. Several performances stand out in particular. Van Quattro plays John's father with an authoritative bearing and a dry wit that is clearly shaken by his wayward son's behavior. Across the street, so to speak, Mary-Margaret Pyeatt both delights and unsettles audiences as Mrs. Winemiller, Alma's mother. It is hinted that Mrs. Winemiller has had some kind of a nervous breakdown in the past. To illustrate this, Pyeatt sprawls herself out with abandon in her character's living room, impishly delighting in acting out without fear of retaliation from her husband or daughter.
Equally enthralling is Rachel Reininger as Nellie, Alma's student and eventual rival in love. Reininger is aware of the drastic changes her character undergoes in a short amount of time, and she skillfully transitions from hysterical immaturity to composed maturity in a way that feels natural. Even more impressive is the cunning glances that Reininger shoots at her scene partners like an expert marksman, conveying clear motives and emotions without having to utter a word.
The frequent object of these glances is-of course-John Buchanan Jr., expertly portrayed by Evan Michael Woods with all the contradictory complexities that a Tennessee Williams leading man requires. Woods has created a fully realized character that acknowledges the stereotype of the rich playboy without ever fully giving in to its easily playable tropes. Certainly, Woods's John is fiery and seductive, but he is also wryly funny, responding to friend and foe alike with a quick undercutting wit that finds the humor in lines that might not otherwise seems amusing. Through it all, though, Woods maintains a carefully crafted air of sadness, wearing an occasionally despondent expression when he thinks no one is looking and revealing that John might crave something beyond the sensuousness of a night at the casino. When John makes a life-changing decision at the play's conclusion, Woods's performance makes the choice both understandable and believable.
Gretchen Hahn gives SUMMER AND SMOKE a distinctive sizzle with her unmatched performance as Alma Winemiller. First and foremost, Hahn is irresistibly charismatic, giving Alma a power and bearing that one might not expect from an innocent preacher's daughter. And while Alma may be innocent, Hahn refuses to make her naïve, and she confronts the bad behavior of her loved ones without flinching even if one might occasionally see a look of fear flash through her eyes. As strong as her Alma may be, though, Hahn is deeply aware of the journey her character must make, and she carefully chooses those moments where Alma's belief in a higher calling seems to falter. One striking scene in particular has Alma show up to John's house in the middle of the night seeking treatment for heart palpitations. As Woods tenderly places his stethoscope against Hahn's bared chest, it is difficult to tell who is seducing whom, which speaks to the electrifying chemistry the two actors share with one another.
Like many of Williams's plays, the script occasionally moves into melodrama, especially in some of its later scenes. But audiences would never realize this unless they were already familiar with the piece. This production's actors-Woods and Hahn in particular-play their roles with such sincere commitment that not a single word comes across as forced or scripted. In their mouths, Williams's carefully crafted lyricism strikes the ear as naturally as the sound of cicadas on a summer's night.