Sizzle and Soul: TCTP’s Righteous SUMMER AND SMOKE

Gretchen Hahn as Alma and Evan Michael Woods as John in Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke

People tend to associate Tennessee Williams plays with pedantic required reading for high school English classes or as suitably relegated to university production where students “learn to act” through staging fusty, outdated Classics. How unfortunate. A worthy stage experience can transport an audience into an invented world of wonder and illumination, providing unanticipated insight into the human soul and psyche. American playwright Tennessee Williams mastered the incandescent, complex art of presenting suffering and human frailty as transcendent beauty and universal human experience like almost nobody else does today. The Classic Theatre Project mounts an ethereal yet visceral production of Williams’ 1947 work Summer and Smoke, set around the turn of the 19th century to pre-WWI in the fictional town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi. Following the triumph of the very popular A Streetcar Named Desire, this play never quite measured up. In 1952, Geraldine Page played Alma in a revival directed by José Quintero at the newly founded Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City. Her performance is credited with initiating the launch of the Off-Broadway movement, establishing her outstanding career and redeeming the play as a valid, if challenging, work. Within the contextual mores of the era, the play wages a battle between life as an ego-driven, sensual excursion and one which aspires to noble achievement through sacrifice and transcendent devotion. The war for domination feels almost Greek in style as it unfolds; but there is no ribbon-bound, easy ending with moralistic or “edgy” resolution. Williams was far too complex a writer and person to resort to that.

Alma (Gretchen Hahn), Dr. Buchanan (Van Quattro) and John (Evan Michael Woods)

What if a twenty-something, small town Mick Jagger had been trained as a monk but rebelled with every fiber of his being? And he grew up next door to a preacher’s daughter, a Janis Joplin shadow, burying her sensual self deep beneath repressive convention, determined to reform this Mick with Bodhisattva-like morality? A ferocious clash of divine opposites plays out at human scale. TCTP director Emily Scott Banks cast the smoldering, ominously sensual Evan Michael Woods as dissolute young Dr. John Buchanan and TCTP company member Gretchen Hahn as the fragile but determined Alma, whose name translates as “soul” in Spanish. Both well-cast actors bring clearly defined, firmly balanced physicality and conviction to their portrayals that will surely continue to grow as they play to more audiences (seen for review at first preview). I’d like to see Woods revel in John’s self-destructive vulgarity with a bit more of a careless, lascivious Jagger edge, so palpable under the surface and looming in his eyes. Hahn’s Alma is so tightly bound up in her repressive conventional morality it hurts to watch her traverse the arc of convulsive rationalization driving her totally bonkers with desire. It would be a rush of relief to watch her virtual chastity belt drop off in the final scene with John, even though it doesn’t lead them to a predictably comfy resolve. Life doesn’t always grant easy answers. As these leads carry the arc of this show, I sensed they were clearly headed in the direction playwright Williams had in mind. His secondary characters create the context and texture of the play, superbly played. Stan Graner and Mary-Margaret Pyeatt inhabit Alma’s conventional parents as if they have weathered and accepted a disappointing marriage for a long time. Van Quattro as John’s father, the humanitarian Dr. Buchanan, reveals an understandable frustration with his wayward son’s provocative actions and functions as the play’s true moral center. The play spins and spins awry then seems to catch its breath when Quattro’s Dr. Buchanan appears. Rachel Reinnenger’s pushy Nellie adds a comic element to balance the play’s overall tragic mood and earthy contrast to Alma’s pretensions to sainthood.

Alma and John face off in Summer and Smoke

Set design by Nat McBride, strategically structured in–the-round, helps avoid any labored scene changes and keeps the action dynamic, in suit with Emily Scott Banks’ bold direction. I don’t feel the play needed to move to a modern setting with contemporary costumes, but that may be a function of company budget as much as aesthetic. It jarred me occasionally but didn’t prevent appreciation of the accomplishment of this sensitive, vivid staging. Dallas gets a unique treat with this professional, truthful production of Summer and Smoke, running through June 22 at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park. Thanks to TCTP for presenting worthy stage works of classic dimension for Dallas audiences’ pleasure.

Photos by Nat McBride

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