"Summer and Smoke"
Hartford Stage, Hartford
Once again Hartford Stage’s Artistic Director Michael Wilson returns to the familiar territory of Tennessee Williams. In his continuing marathon of Tennessee Williams plays, he has mounted an elegant production of the 1948 drama “Summer and Smoke,” with Amanda Plummer in the lead as Miss Alma.
“Summer and Smoke,” with the passion and poetry of Williams at his best, focuses on the playwright’s recurrent theme: how is a romantic to survive in the gritty world of reality? Specifically, Miss Alma is the romantic, a proper uptight spinster, but, it would seem, burning with desire just beneath that surface. It is a heroine we meet again and again in the Williams canon, as Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” for example.
The object of Miss Alma’s desire is John, her next door neighbor and son of old Doc Buchanan. But her days play out as the minister’s daughter--running her father’s household, looking after her childish mother, and attending dull cultural events. The young doctor next door, given over to booze, rebellion, dissipation and women, poses a sharp contrast to Miss Alma. The two duel it out fiercely, as sacred and profane love take unexpected turns.
There is much to be said for Wilson’s production, which opens with a charming Fourth of July celebration. One is reminded of a Broadway opening number, as characters wander across the stage pushing baby carriages, carrying balloons, selling ice cream cones. Thus the stage is set for small-town life circa 1916. Tony Straiges’ stage set, which seemed fragmented initially, comes to life vibrantly as the story gets under way, and David C. Woolard’s all-beige costumes give a light, summery feeling to the opening. Thus we are lulled by a summer day in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, caught off guard as the tragi-comedy unfolds.
“Summer and Smoke” is a strong drama, with characters intensifying in each scene, and calls for a strong lead. But Amanda Plummer’s portrayal is so understated that the role’s potential is never realized. She all but disappears from the stage and is no match for Marc Kudisch, a dynamic John Buchanan. Thus the center of gravity shifts, and this “Summer and Smoke” becomes Buchanan’s story—his struggle and ultimate triumph—rather than that of Miss Alma (which was undoubtedly Williams’ intention).
But Wilson gets fine performances from a first-rate supporting cast. Jennifer Harmon as the minister’s childish wife is an absolute gem. She never misses a beat, never goes out of character. And others, rounding out the village characters and worthy of particular note, are Stephanie Beatriz, Marta Reiman, Mateo Gomez, and Johanna Morrison.
In all, there is much to commend this handsome production.
-- Irene Backalenick
Sept. 13, 2006