Marin Ireland and Nathan Darrow in ‘Summer and Smoke.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Bobby McGuire
The plays of Tennessee Williams are rife with eccentric heroines whose desires are too great for their complex and fragile souls. But even the best-known amongst them (Amanda Wingfield and Blanche DuBois) can’t hold a candle to Alma Winemiller. Yet due to infrequent productions, attention is rarely paid to the prim parson’s daughter turned wannabe bad girl of Summer and Smoke. Thankfully, due to a spectacular performance by Marin Ireland in a top-flight co-production by Classic Stage Company and The Transport Group, Alma is back in one of the best revivals of a Williams play in recent memory.
Set in the fictitious town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi in the summer of 1916, Summer and Smoke centers on Alma, a minister’s daughter on the cusp of spinsterhood who has long carried a torch for John (a wonderfully sexy Nathan Darrow), the bad boy son of the town doctor next door. Regularly informing people that her name is Spanish for “soul,” Alma yearns for a spiritual and marital bond with John, who prefers to indulge his carnal side with casino hostess, Rosa. A fatal gunshot in the midst of Summer ironically flips the script on the pair, leaving John with Alma’s soul and Alma with John’s desire.
“I came here to tell you that being a gentleman, doesn’t seem so important to me anymore, but you’re telling me I’ve got to remain a lady,” Alma laughingly laments at the play’s apex. “The tables have turned with a vengeance!” she adds — and indeed they have.
Brilliantly brought to life by Ireland, Alma is a walking ganglion of nerves, desperate to gain the attention of John while unsuccessfully feigning disinterest. And whether she is failing in her flirtations, or stymied by her artistically pretentious friends in her attempts at a social life, Ireland is as fascinating to watch reacting to her circumstances as she is when delivering Williams’ poetry.
Darrow’s John oozes with almost compulsive cockiness and sexuality. His chemistry with Ireland is palpable as he tends to and later eschews what Alma calls her “affliction of love.”
Director Jack Cumming III economically directs the drama, placing equal weight on both the play’s apparent symbolism and unsuspected humor. When the tables turn on the star-crossed pair, he soft lands the evening to its ironic and heartbreaking denouement.
On board with Cummings is the design team. Dane Laffrey’s minimalist raised bare white stage and low hung ceiling appropriately sandwiches John and Alma, giving visual emphasis to the microscope they live under in their gossipy small town. R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting and Kathryn Rohe’s costumes are suitably understated.
The ensemble acting is for the most part superb. Standouts include Barbara Walsh as Alma’s shrewish mentally ill mother, Jonathan Spivey as Alma’s hapless suitor Roger, and Tina Johnson as a particularly antisocial member of Alma’s social group. Elena Hurst brings both heat and pathos to the role of Rosa.
Like finding a $100 bill inside a suit jacket at the back of your closet, this production of Summer and Smoke is a welcome reunion for those familiar with the piece, and a windfall for those new to it. The new theater season is in its infancy, but with this production, the bar is set very high for its remainder.
Summer and Smoke
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Through May 20
Bobby McGuire is the backstage veteran of nine Broadway shows and national tours. His post-showbiz life led him to work for Ogilvy and Mather, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and EDGE Media Network. He resides in Manhattan with two roommates and a Maltese named Nero.