Summer and Smoke
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Through April 17
Playwright Tennessee Williams was always an intensely personal writer, verging on the obsessive in his preoccupation with certain themes, locales, and character types. But earlier in his career, his obsessions were kept in control, and he had a real desire to make his work accessible to the larger audience. Elia Kazan, who directed the original productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, Camino Real, and Sweet Bird of Youth, tried constantly to push him in the direction of accessibility and commercial success.
But after Williams and Kazan clashed over the rewrites of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, they often went their separate ways. Williams became increasingly resentful of the pressure to conform to commercial demands, and more determined to pursue his own vision, however dark or audience unfriendly it might be. He seemed almost willfully determined not to give the public what it wanted. So, for the last 22 years of his life, though he went on writing with gallant determination, success eluded him– though his earlier works continued to be performed.
Summer and Smoke derives from the early years of his career, and along with Streetcar and The Glass Menagerie, achieves an almost classical balance and sanity. In it we are introduced to the fluttery, repressed spinster and minister’s daughter Alma Winemiller (Tara Battani) who is arguably a spiritual sister of Blanche Dubois and the shy Laura of The Glass Menagerie. Her nemesis, and the object of her secret affection, is her next-door neighbor, young Dr. John Buchanan (Gregory James). She has nursed her love for him since childhood, but they are, in a sense, oil and water. She denies the physical aspects of love, insisting on its pure spirituality, while he is the local bad-boy, ardently devoted to the carnal, in the form of the earthy Rosa Gonzales (Fernanda Rohd). It’s the classic conflict between flesh and spirit.
Alma disapproves of John’s irresponsible, wastrel ways, but she doesn’t really understand him. He understands her all too well, unnerving her because he recognizes the lonely desperation she frantically tries to conceal beneath Southern belle pretensions. He seeks to awaken her to physical realities, while she tries to convert him to her own ideals. In the final irony, each converts the other, leaving them as far apart as ever.
Battani’s Alma is unexpectedly assertive. Most previous Almas have been shy and self-effacing, attacking John only as a defense against his assaults. Here, she is downright aggressive, with a crusading desire to convert him. This approach is dynamic, if unexpected, and leads to fireworks in their relationship. James’s John is multi-faceted, always torn between his admiration and respect for Alma, and his own hedonism.
Director Thom Babbes approaches the material with a broad brush, which works much of the time, but occasionally seems, as in the case of Alma’s party scene, to coarsen and vulgarize. Deborah Marlowe perfectly embodies the malicious, spiteful nature of Alma’s semi-demented mother, and Jeffrey Markle captures the selfish, mean-spirited hypocrisy of her minister father. Townsend Coleman makes a sympathetic figure of John’s doctor father, who understands Alma, but not his wayward son.
Markus Jorgensen finds naïve charm in the neophyte travelling salesman Archie Kramer who seeks to pick up the newly awakened Alma. And Melody Hollis plays Nellie Ewell as a giggly flibbertigibbet rather than a sane and healthy alternative to Alma’s neurotic passion.
Rich Rose’s set design is handsome and flexible, but the statue of the Angel Eternity, which dominates the stage, seems curiously grim and forbidding. And Vicki Conrad’s costumes are a mixed bag: the 1915-16 era is a difficult one to capture. Some of the gowns seem slightly out of period, skimpy or decidedly unflattering.
David Schall Theatre at Actors Co-op, 1760 North Gower Street, on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2:30 p.m. Sat. matinee on April 16, 2:30 p.m. (323) 462-8460 or www.ActorsCo-op.org. Running time: two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.