BWW Review: Actors Co-op Sizzles with SUMMER AND SMOKE

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Summer and Smoke/by Tennessee Williams/Actors Co-op, David Schall Theatre/directed by Thom Babbes/through April 17

Tennessee Williams published Summer and Smoke in 1948 and revised and rewrote it in 1964 as The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Summer and Smoke is the popular, much revived version despite the fact Tennessee himself among many critics considered the second version to be the most lyrical representation of Miss Alma, the Spanish word for soul. In both plays singer/music teacher Alma Winemiller (Tara Battani), daughter of an Episcopalean minister (Jeffrey Markle), is passionately in love with her neighbor young Dr. John Buchanan (Gregory James) and when that love is gradually unrequited rather than become a miserable spinster, after a long struggle of illness and isolation, she turns to prostitution. In a handsome production of Summer and Smoke at Actors Co-op, Williams' debate between the flesh and the spirit, body vs. soul, is still burning with poetic truth after almost 70 years.

The time is 1915-16; the place, Glorious Hill, Mississippi. Dr. John Buchanan Jr. is a lecherous bachelor in nightly sexual pursuits at the Moonlight Casino. Even though Miss Alma, who lives across the yard from the Buchanan house, leads a chaste, spiritual life, struggling to lead Buchanan down the right path philosophically, she is not without her flaws. Supposedly unbearable heart palpitations cause her to frequently visit Dr. Buchanan Sr. (Townsend Coleman). An excuse to see and speak with the young Buchanan, whom she ogles from her parlor window whenever she gets the opportunity! Shades of Blanche Du Bois from A Streetcar Named Desire, written one year earlier in 1947. Alma's mother (Deborah Marlowe) is slowly going insane like Blanche and Williams' own mother and sister. As it seems to run in the family, it is no small wonder that Alma attempts to escape from the destiny of gloom that hangs over her like a cloud, namely the Reverend Winemiller with his strict, in fact unruly upper hand. Miss Alma may speak in a lofty eloquent manner and may claim to follow his fold, but her heart veers recklessly toward earthly passions and delights. But ... when Buchanan attempts to seduce her, her spiritual side intervenes, she cannot give in to him and rejects him scornfully.

Back and forth it goes, the conflict of body and soul. In Act II, as Williams wrote, for Miss Alma, "The tables turn with a vengeance." Both the young Buchanan and Miss Alma transform completely, he to a more responsible, respected 'pillar of the community', she cascading downhill and thoroughly exuding the passions of the flesh. They have effectively influenced one another, but sadly, they can never be together, fulfilling Miss Alma's dream.

Actors Co-op's production is beautifully staged, acted and directed. Scenic designer Rich Rose makes full use of the stage to represent Glorious Hill, Mississippi with the town square in the foreground, people passing by in the background. The fountain and the statue of the angel Eternity loom large. A tiny set with furniture and props stage left represents Buchanan's medical office and one stage right, the Winemiller parlor. It's a small space, but director Thom Babbes has staged just right to avoid clutter or overcrowding. When the actors cross behind from one side to the other, the fountain of hope and the statue Eternity are constantly in view, reminding one of the play's complex themes.

The ensemble is excellent. Battani's Miss Alma is a bit forced at first glance with her hands twisting and turning. My first thought was "Oh, this is a far more contemporary view of Miss Alma than I've seen. It's as if Julia Roberts were playing the role. What will she do with it?" Well, as she progressed into the conflict, especially in Act II, Battani proved herself quite the stunning actress, as Miss Alma's transformation was touching and graceful, truly gallante. James does exceedingly well with John, making him appropriately reserved, cool and thoroughly engaging in his moves of sensuality. Marlowe is terrific with Mrs. Winemiller's desperate outbursts. Melody Hollis is a most definite standout as Nellie Ewell, Alma's singing pupil who ends up being Buchanan's fiancee. She makes Nellie all silly, selfish girlishness in the beginning, and then glowing with a beautiful sense of maturity and with much thought and kindness in her later scenes. The members of Alma's literary club steal that scene, making it memorable. Keri Tombazian as Mrs. Bassett, Brian Habicht as the awkwardly unappealing Roger Doremus, Markus Jorgensen as shy Vernon - and as affable Archie Kramer in the last scene - and Ann Marie Wilding as the quiet, confused Rosemary are all winning. Markle is the epitome of stern as Reverend Winemiller. Coleman is straightforward and believable as the elder Dr. Buchanan. Completing the cast admirably are Fernanda Rohd as Rosa Gonzalez, the whorish girlfriend of John Buchanan Jr. and as her father Mr. Gonzalez, the brash, ruthless casino owner, Marco Antonio Garcia.

Williams' inclusion and portrayal of the Gonzalez family - he, violent and she, sluttish - really puts a bad stereotypical mark on Mexicans, and he rightfully omitted them in the later version of the play Eccentricities. They do little to push the main themes forward. I prefer Eccentricities to Summer and Smoke, because it also makes Miss Alma's struggle seem more believably palpable, more pathetic. My feelings aside, go see Summer and Smoke, as any Tennessee Williams is better than no Tennessee Williams at all, and above all ... appreciate another stellar production by Actors Co-op.

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From This Author Don Grigware