Review: SUMMER + SMOKE at Tennessee Williams Threatre Company

Production runs through August 27

By: Aug. 15, 2022
Review: SUMMER + SMOKE at Tennessee Williams Threatre Company
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Review: SUMMER + SMOKE at Tennessee Williams Threatre Company
Elizabeth McCoy (Alma) and Justin Davis (John)
Photo by James Kelley

An emotionally rich production of an unsung work from Tennessee Williams's canon is making waves through the Crescent City with the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company's production of SUMMER + SMOKE.

Beautiful and compelling, SUMMER + SMOKE stages a love story between Alma, a duty-bound preacher's daughter, and John, a wayward doctor with a propensity for self-destruction. It may sound like your typical good girl loves the bad boy tale, but at its core, SUMMER + SMOKE is a great drama that tackles the metaphysical through the lens of unrequited love.

Having loved John since childhood, Alma is romantically idealistic. Yet, her life growing up in the shadow of her father's sermons and caring for her mother's mental illness has repressed her heart and made her a spinster in her teen years. While she pines for John's affections, he loses himself to drinking, gambling and seducing the daughter of a local casino owner. As the play progresses, both souls become lost ships as they navigate the waters between passion and propriety. John's mistakes catch up to him just as he and Alma finally find solace in each other. The show's second half shows a philosophical reversal of roles. John is repentant, while Alma herself has transformed beyond her previous pious nature. A spiritual prequel to Blanche, if you will.

Written the same time as A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, SUMMER + SMOKE shares many elements of other Williams dramas. The plot is familiar, and the character types are there, but there's a nuance that makes this one of Williams' most poetic and lyrical plays. The characters of Alma and John have the raw passion of Blanche and Stanley, yet there is a beautiful tenderness with Alma and John not seen since Laura and Jim in THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Williams himself reworked the script for over 20 years to perfect it, and his dedication shows, creating a beautiful union of poetry and playwriting.

Featuring an ensemble cast, TWTC Co-Artistic Director Augustin Correro directs this rarely staged work by Williams with great aplomb. The cast includes robert mitchell, Gwendolyn Foxworth, Yvette Bourgeois, George Trahanis, Mariola Chalas, Gil Angelo Anfone, Mia Frost, Lizzy Bruce, and Matthew Boese. The combined performances of these actors cannot be praised enough. While the play is very much a drama, this cast finds the humor in Williams, making it a very well-rounded show.

It is the lead performances from Elizabeth McCoy and Justin Davis that seal the success of this production. McCoy's exquisite performance shows the different layers of Alma's character: fragile, repressed, and just a tiny bit of neurosis. But beneath that is a fire that may eventually consume her as she struggles with wants and desires that are deemed unacceptable. Matched with Davis's raw energy, he coils around Alma's life, stoking the fire, though never to touch her. Both are trapped between desire and fear of obligation to society's expectations. But their love for one another, while filled with jealousy and rejection, carries the message that love is worth its afflictions even if they may ruin each other.

Production design includes a set created by Steve Schepker featuring a church rectory, John's family medical practice. And at the center is a stone angel statue that holds immense symbolic power, both in how Alma appears to John and how Alma herself cannot live up to the cold, emotionless pedestal. The set element of parasols floating upward is a nice expressionistic touch as they resemble "reaching up to something beyond attainment."

Lightning design by Diane Baas is evocative as it pulls you in two directions: godliness and light versus seduction and darkness. The costume designs by Grace Smith reflect the character's inner mental state. Like Belle in Beauty & the Beast, Alma's golden dress is a personal favorite.

The standout design element, which has become a signature touch of TWTC, is Nick Shackleford's atmospheric soundscape. His movements blossom over time, creating a dreamy mood that elevates or underpins Williams's poetry.

This oft-forgotten play has found its place in Williams's canon thanks to the efforts of TWTC. SUMMER + SMOKE is a real gem of human drama that will have you totally in its grip.

SUMMER + SMOKE is at the Marigny Opera House through August 27.


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