By Tennessee Williams; Directed by Terry Schreiber
Produced by T. Schreiber Theatre
Off Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 6.6.15
T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre, 151 West 26th Street
by Cindy Pierre on 5.16.15
Jacques Mitchell and Taylor Graves in Summer and Smoke. Photo by BobDegus.com
BOTTOM LINE: A classy minister’s daughter falls in love with and is transformed by the troubled son of a doctor who lives next door.
There’s often a fat line between doing what we want to do and doing what we ought to do. In most situations, the former favors the flesh and pleasure, while the latter favors the spirit and conscience. Some have no trouble at all jumping that hurdle with reckless abandon. Others gaze longingly across the divide, wishing that they could traverse it. Such is the case in T. Schreiber Theatre’s thoughtful and poetic production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. In it, desire and decorum engage in a dance, circling each other assertively as each try to take the lead. The end result? Disappointed and dissatisfied characters, but a rapt and entertained audience.
Set during the summer of 1913 in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, Summer and Smoke begins delicately, paving the way for the gentility of its protagonist, vocal instructor Ms. Alma Winemiller (Taylor Graves). Her decorum, easily construed as airs, is quite pronounced as she converses in the park with John Buchanan (Jacques Mitchell), her charming, handsome, and less couth neighbor. Though there is mutual interest, an invisible barrier exists between the two that keeps the subtle but expertly crafted fireworks (created by sound designer Andy Evan Cohen and lighting designer Dennis Parichy) in the background. That invisible barrier is societal expectation.
Alma is the daughter of a minister and John is the son of a doctor. While she conscientiously upholds her father’s station, John does the opposite, frequenting alcohol and passionate women like Rosa Gonzales (Aida Alvarez). Alma encourages John to nurture his soul, but John counters with requests that she feed her body. The activities that each propose support their philosophical positions. They move about quite differently in their shared, reputable world and can’t seem to meet in the middle. For example, John despises the stuffy soiree that Alma invites him to in her home as much as she disdains the cockfight that he invites her to at a local casino. And because they cannot see eye to eye, time meanders on and their circumstances change. The following year, even though each have come to embrace the other’s perspective, it winds up being too late.
With tenderness and a little bit of melancholy, Terry Schreiber directs a stellar cast to make one of Williams’ quieter plays come alive -- “quieter” in the sense that characters aren’t always leading with their fiery emotions like in some of Williams’ other works. Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and Streetcar Named Desire come to mind. Instead, Summer and Smoke’s story is a little more demure.
Operating within the parameters of Alma’s social position, Graves is particularly commendable as the heart-broken, wistful, and refined lady who later attempts to become a tramp. Though Alma’s behavior is constricted, Graves plays Alma with a fortitude that is admirable. There is also such a boldness and piercing honesty in her Alma, despite John’s perception of Alma and most of the world as fake, when she declares her love for him.
In addition to Alma’s own proclivities, John also has a ragtag bunch of snooty people to look to that form his opinion. Right in his own home is Dr. John Buchanan, Sr. (Jim Cyborowski), the father who loves him but is ashamed of him all the same. Alma’s father, Rev. Winemiller (Daniel Hawk Hicks), doesn’t even want John Jr. in his house without supervision. Roger (Ivan Sandomire), Alma’s alternate suitor, is a veritable bore. And even though Mrs. Bassett (Kathryn Fray) is a hoot as the town’s gossip, her corset is also tightly-cinched.
But not everyone toes the social norms. Some are either on the outskirts or teeter-tottering over the edge. In addition to John’s bedmate, Rosa, there is Rosa’s father, Dusty (Stephan Antonio Ortiz), a man with no shame. Uppity but batty Mrs. Winemiller (Cynthia Shaw), doesn’t always do what she’s expected to do with hilarious repercussions. Even the excitable and agreeable Nellie (Bevin Bru), one of Alma’s students, though part of high society, does a thing or two to make you question her decency.
Whereas some of the characters’ behaviors are not always neatly tucked, set designer Hal Tine makes sure that all of the scenery is in its proper and functional place. Making full use of the modest space, Tine enables the characters to move from the park to the doctor’s office and to the living room of a home with ease. Each piece and setting is quaint, cozy, and as to be expected for the time period.
Another element that succeeds in transporting the audience to the turn of the century is Hope Governali’s costumes. Complimentary to the times and impressive, the wardrobe seems to defy any imagined budgetary constraints.
Summer and Smoke is about how society can often get in the way of love and freedom, a theme that has been visited before in Williams’ works. Williams himself was known to have rebelled from his religious and aristocratic upbringing. In fact, several of the characters seem to be etched from the playwright’s personal history. In her hysteria, identity as a southern belle and role as a vocal instructor, Alma appears to be a hybrid of his mother Edwina and his maternal grandmother Rose. Mrs. Winemiller and Rosa could be several versions of his schizophrenic sister Rose.
Perhaps that is why this story feels so important and so true. The depths to which Williams goes in his own family resonate in this work. And the care, knowledge, skill and emotion that this cast and crew pour into this production make it a memorable must-see.
(Summer and Smoke at the T. Schreiber Theatre, 151 West 26th Street, 7th Floor, through June 6, 2015. Tickets start at $20 and are available at eventbrite.com. Showtimes are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 with matinees on Wednesday, May 27th and Wednesday, June 3rd at 2. For more show information, please visit tschreiber.org.)