Saturday, March 17, 2018

SUMMER AND SMOKE at the Almeida Theatre - Body and Soul...

Playwright Tennessee Williams' golden years can be bracketed between 1944 with the astonishing success of THE GLASS MENAGERIE, and the 1963 critical and commercial failure of THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE - twelve plays in nineteen years which challenged the American theatre to look again at the way those of 'the fugitive kind' survive the cruelties of life and love.

Of those twelve main plays, there are only two I have not yet seen: CAMINO REAL (1953) and PERIOD OF ADJUSTMENT (1960) - a rare Williams comedy - because, thanks to the Almeida Theatre, I can now add SUMMER AND SMOKE to my 'seen' list.

SUMMER AND SMOKE premiered on Broadway in 1948, a year after A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, but only ran three months, STREETCAR ran for two years!  It was directed by Margo Jones, who had made a name for herself in US regional theatre and been an exponent of theatre-in-the-round.  She had co-directed the original production of THE GLASS MENAGERIE and she lobbied for the director role on SUMMER AND SMOKE.  However the rehearsal period was very troubled resulting in Williams and the cast losing all faith in her.

Off-Broadway director José Quintero staged a revival in 1952 at the Circle In The Square which was well-received and launched the career of actress Geraldine Page: she won a Drama Desk award and, when she recreated her role in the 1961 film version, was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award.  Williams' returned to the story in 1964, rewriting it as THE ECCENTRICITIES OF A NIGHTINGALE but by the time it was staged in the 1970s, Williams was out of fashion and it ran 20 performances.  Amazingly SUMMER AND SMOKE took nearly sixty years to reach London but it only ran for 6 weeks in the West End, unsurprising with the glacial Rosamund Pike in the lead.

But 12 years later, SUMMER AND SMOKE has reappeared at the Almeida Theatre in a re-imagined production which initially threw me but by the interval I was totally hooked.  Director Rebecca Frecknall has come over all Ivo van Hove and has designer Tom Scutt impose an idiosyncratic visual look to Wiliams' play set in pre-1916 Mississippi but the totally stripped-down playing area distills the action to just the actor and the words; the only furniture are nine stand-up pianos that line up in a semi-circle at the back of the stage with their hardback chairs.

Alma Winemiller lives in the incongruously-named small town of Glorious Hill, the highly-strung daughter of the town's straight-laced minister and his demented wife.  She has grown up across the street from John Buchanan, the virile son of the town doctor, and her unrequited passion for him has been unwavering since school when she embarrassed him with a present of handkerchiefs.  Alma's neurasthenia leads her to have breathless palpitations which means she visits the doctor at all hours but Alma and John, while on friendly terms, cannot give each other what they need.  

Alma, a music teacher who holds raggedy literary 'salons', seeks a spiritual connection - she delights in telling everyone she meets that Alma is Spanish for 'soul' - but John is bored with his medical studies and wants life and excitement which he finds regularly in the Latino quarter outside town, especially at the casino on Moon Lake owned by Pablo Gonzales whose daughter Rosa he is involved with.  Alma's choking primness and nervous mannerisms cannot compete with Rosa's lush sensuality and, after a disastrous date at the casino, the die is cast for them.

Dr. Buchanan leaves to help with an outbreak of fever so John throws a wild party at the surgery to celebrate his engagement to Rosa; a jealous Alma contacts his father who returns to angrily confront the drunken Pablo who draws a gun...  an event that leads to Alma collapsing physically and mentally.  By the time she recovers, the momentous summer is over and life has changed forever: John has taken over his father's work, has renounced his former ways and is engaged to Nellie, one of Alma's singing pupils.  Alma realizes that her former attitudes have made her miss out on engaging with life and love:
'The girl who said 'no' — she doesn't exist anymore, she died last summer — suffocated in smoke from something on fire inside her.'

By stripping the action of all distractions, director Rebecca Frecknall draws you into the lives of John and, in particular, Alma and, while she cannot make much of Williams' 2nd Act melodramatic plot turn, she elicits strong performances from her cast of eight - I didn't even mind the Director Theatre shtick of the cast plonking the pianos for atmosphere...  Frecknall made the scenes between Alma and John crackle with tension, in particular the Act 1 scene where he listened to her heartbeat then held her wrist to check her pulse was played to a silence from the audience, gripped by the action.

There are some standout performances: Anjana Vasan was vibrant playing the contrasting roles of Rosa and Nellie, Nancy Crane was good as Alma's deranged mother as well as the gossipy Mrs. Bassett, and Seb Carrington was particularly good as Archie Kramer, the lonely travelling salesman who Alma meets in the darkening town park under the statue of the angel; an ending which is left nicely ambiguous... will it lead to Alma engaging in life positively or negatively?

Matthew Needham played the role of John well, you suspect that Williams wrote a sounding-board for Alma to be play against than a fully-rounded character but Needham showed both the reckless side of the bored medical student as well as the chastened older John who assumes responsibility with his father's death.

But the play belongs to the actress who plays Alma and Patsy Ferran is inspired casting.  Her slightly 'other' quality works in her favour here; you totally believe that her Alma is unable to fit in to the straightened society of Glorious Hill and the weight of her repressed home life is excellently suggested.  Ferran's quality of stillness here illuminates her character and she negotiates Alma's journey well, despite Williams' tendency to overdo Alma's misfit itchiness.  Ferran starts the play with an extended asthma-style panic attack which really pitches you into the character - as well as being an endurance test for her right at the top of the show.

Alma sits interestingly between two of Williams' previous characters: the over-protected and shy Laura from THE GLASS MENAGERIE and the neurotic gentility of STREETCAR's Blanche - another teacher who has embraced life too dangerously.

Although the play is not the best of Williams' canon - the obvious repetition of the soul (Alma) and the body (John) begin to clang after a while - I am so glad to have finally see it in a production which shows it off to it's fullest potential.

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