Saturday, May 12, 2018

Summer and Smoke - More Than 90% There

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

One can't be helped out of a bad situation unless they are first willing to help themselves. A tenet for anyone suffering from substance abuse, and also when it comes to matters of the heart. The latter point brilliantly made clear in Tennessee Williams' 1948 drama, Summer and Smoke. Presented by Classic Stage Company and Transport Group, the work shows how fine a line there can be between sympathy and pity.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, in the town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, Alma Winemiller (Marin Ireland) is the somewhat repressed daughter of the town reverend (T. Ryder Smith). She teaches music, hosts weekly literary gatherings and generally tries to set a proper example for others. She also refuses to condemn one person for the actions of another. Such as her friendship with Nellie Ewell (Hannah Elless), daughter of a woman who personally welcomes many of the traveling salesmen who pass through town. Alma has also been forced to sacrifice much of her childhood to take care of her mother (Barbara Walsh). A woman who, since having a nervous breakdown, can be quite verbally abusive.

One Fourth of July, Alma has a chance encounter with John Buchanan (Nathan Darrow), the ne’er-do-well son of the town physician (Phillip Clark). John however, has no intention of following in his father’s footsteps. He preferring a life of liquor, gambling and female companionship. He's also often seen in the company of Rosa Gonzalez (Elena Hurst). A woman whose uncle owns the Moon Lake Casino; a place which offers the very pursuits John enjoys.

When Alma and John meet, there's an instant attraction. One not only filled with sexual tension, but also a meeting of kindred souls. Both people possessing an inner torment, and each fighting a future that has been seemingly predetermined. John seeing in Alma a woman who can save him from his inner demons, yet mostly content to admire her from afar. Alma meanwhile, seeks someone to show her the passion and beauty she has never experienced first-hand, but can only watch helplessly as John continuously fails to measure up to the man she wants him to be.

Marin Ireland and Nathan Darrow in Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams at Classic Stage Company. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg.

Williams' strongest plays deal with human nature, and Summer and Smoke is no exception. The story makes it clear that Alma and John are not so much in love as looking for a lifeline. Yet one can’t help but feel that should these two actually get together, it will end in tragedy. Each desperately seeking an idealized version of what they believe a happy existence should entail.

Ireland and Darrow are brilliant together, each deftly bringing their character’s pain vividly to life. Ireland is the standout, a woman simply worn out from coping with the stress at home and the pressure of who she’s supposed to be. Alma must also often deal with the latest news from the town gossips; John frequently the subject of their revelations.

Darrow is fine as John, the harder role to pull off. He having to present a totally cynical worldview, yet still make his character sympathetic to the audience. John can be best described as someone searching for, and hiding from, himself in any way possible.

The rest of the cast is quite good. Elless is fine as Nellie, a musical student with no talent whatsoever, but who eventually finds her own place in the scheme of things. Smith is okay, if a little stereotypical, as Reverend Winemiller. Walsh does an excellent job as Alma's tormented and hurtful mother. Someone who just may have a bit more sense of awareness than she lets on.

John Doyle’s direction is sure-handed, allowing the various characters, and particularly the two leads, to play off each other perfectly. He mixing in several pregnant pauses when the two are together, while helping to bring forth the inner feelings of each. Probably the most lasting impression of all is the air of defeat and resignation Alma and John often carry with them.

While this production has all the makings of a perfect offering, there is one glaring misstep. That being the quite minimalist (and almost non-existent) sets by Dane Laffrey. It’s a practice that can work in many instances, (such as CSC’s excellent revival of Pacific Overtures last summer), but not in this case. Summer and Smoke is set in a specific era and screams for the proper atmosphere. One projecting an aura of a faded Southern gentility in conflict with the changing times. Grounding the production thus would have made the work feel so much more immediate. Even the name of the town suggests a place slowly cracking under the weight of its own history; and just having a painting to indicate a statue, or making a reference to a veil which isn’t there, only serves to abruptly pull the audience out of a specific moment rather than immersing them in it.

Kathryn Rohe’s costumes are well done, especially the well-tailored suits Darrow wears. R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting works nicely, as does Walter Trabach’s sound design. The latter often used in an attempt to counter the minuscule offerings of the set.

Summer and Smoke is a compelling tale of two lonely people. The CSC/Transport Group's production of which is quite good indeed. However, if it did not suffer from the problem mentioned above, the show could have been so much better.

Featuring: Glenna Brucken (Rosemary), Phillip Clark (Dr. John Buchanan, Sr.), Nathan Darrow (John Buchanan), Hannah Elless (Nellie Ewell), Elena Hurst (Rosa Gonzalez), Marin Ireland, (Alma Winemiller), Tina Johnson (Mrs. Bassett), Gerardo Rodriguez (Papa Gonzales), T. Ryder Smith (Reverend Winemiller), Ryan Spahn (Archie Kramer), Jonathan Spivey (Roger Doremus), Barbara Walsh (Mrs. Winemiller)

Summer and Smoke
By Tennessee Williams

Set Design: Dane Laffrey
Costume Design: Kathryn Rohe
Lighting Design: R. Lee Kennedy
Sound Design: Walter Trarbach
Original Music: Michael John LaChuisa
Casting: Nora Brennan Casting
Associate Director: Francesca James
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Production Stage Manager: Terri K. Kohler
Assistant Stage Manager: Heather Englander

Directed by Jack Cummings III

Presented by Classic Stage Company and Transport Group
136 East 13th Street (CSC)
Tickets: 212-352-3101, 966-811-4111 or
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes one intermission
Closes: May 25, 2018

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