October 1, 2022

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 the Tennessee Williams canon is making waves across the town of Crescent with the Tennessee Williams Theater Company production of SUMMER + SMOKE.

Beautiful and captivating, SUMMER + SMOKE depicts a love story between Alma, the daughter of a duty-bound preacher, and John, a temperamental doctor with a propensity for self-destruction. It might seem like your typical good girl loves the bad boy tale, but at its core, SUMMER + SMOKE is a great drama that approaches metaphysics through the prism 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 dealing with her mother’s mental illness has suppressed her heart and made her a celibate as a teenager. As she longs for John’s affections, he loses himself in drinking, gambling, and seducing the daughter of a local casino owner. As the play progresses, the two souls become lost vessels as they navigate the waters between passion and propriety. John’s mistakes catch up with him as he and Alma finally find solace in each other. The second half of the show shows a philosophical reversal of roles. John is repentant, while Alma herself has transformed beyond her previous godly nature. A witty prequel to Blanche, if you will.

Written concurrently with A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, SUMMER + SMOKE shares many elements from other Williams dramas. The plot is familiar and the character types are there, but there is 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 lovely tenderness with Alma and John not seen since Laura and Jim in THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Williams himself reworked the screenplay for over 20 years to perfect it, and his dedication shows it, creating a beautiful union of poetry and playwriting.

With 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 truly a drama, this cast finds the humor in Williams, making for a very well-rounded show.

It is the main roles of 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 underneath is a fire that could possibly consume her as she struggles with desires and desires deemed unacceptable. Combined with the raw energy of Davis, it wraps around Alma’s life, stoking the fire, but never touching her. Both are caught between the desire and the fear of having to meet society’s expectations. But their love for each other, though filled with jealousy and rejection, carries the message that love is worth its afflictions even though they may ruin each other.

The production design features a setting created by Steve Schepker with a church rectory, John’s family medical practice. And in the center is a stone angel statue that holds immense symbolic power, both in the way Alma appears to John and in the way Alma herself cannot live up to the cold, pedestal. without emotion. The fixed element of the umbrellas floating upwards is a nice expressionist touch as they look like “reaching something beyond realization”.

Diane Baas’ Lightning design is evocative as it pulls you in two directions: godliness and light versus seduction and darkness. Grace Smith’s costumes 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 TWTC touch, is Nick Shackleford’s atmospheric soundscape. His movements flourish over time, creating a dreamy mood that elevates or underpins Williams’ poetry.

This oft-forgotten piece has found its way into the Williams canon thanks to the efforts of TWTC. SUMMER + SMOKE is a true gem of human drama that will keep you totally in its grip.

SUMMER + SMOKE is at the Opéra de Marigny until August 27th.