Summer and Smoke
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
November 15, 2008
There's plenty of smoke but no real fire in Boomerang Theatre Company's production of Summer and Smoke. It's a beautiful, hauntingly lyrical play, and kudos to Boomerang for continuing to stage such overlooked work. Still, this production doesn't quite ignite, despite some significant sparks.
Part of the problem is the playing space. Center Stage, in its current configuration, presents only two real entrances (from behind the set or from the auditorium). Director Cailin Heffernan does her best to contend with these limitations, but there are several awkward scene transitions. These involve the actors closing the door, exiting the room, then marching back on in the dark, crossing the stage, and going out in the house to make their next cue. Sometimes these transitions are covered with interpolated moments inspired by the script—such as a couple walking across the stage to suggest a park stroll—but more than often they are not.
Nikki Black's set, designed to fit the small stage and meet the demands of three shows running simultaneously in repertory, represents the multiple locales of Tennessee Williams's script with simple, if unimaginative, efficiency. A raised platform stage right represents the rectory; a raised platform stage left represents the doctor's office. A squat, stone angel stands center, presiding over the town park. Everything is bounded by gold-beige walls. Somehow, it all feels oddly claustrophobic and foreshortened—particularly the little angel that is supposed to dominate the play.
Perhaps the cramped locales are supposed to represent the stifling isolation of Glorious Hill, the sleepy little town where the play is set, but they don't match the theatrical grandeur—or simplicity—Williams invoked. In the original stage directions, he suggested the playing areas be bordered by mere doorframes, with a starry sky cyclorama looming above. Here, in Black's design, we get real doors and crowded little rooms. No sky, no hint of the outdoors, no physical reminder of the characters' ache to transcend their earthbound loneliness.
There lies the play's essential conflict. Body versus soul. Can they co-exist? Does the soul exist at all? Alma, a meek minister's daughter (whose name is Spanish for soul) gazes heavenward, but she is unsettled by her awakening desire for her handsome neighbor. That neighbor, the roguish young doctor John, has no patience for Alma's talk about cathedrals. He believes in the body. Yet he feels oddly attracted to Alma's intensity.
Williams portrays Alma and John's fleeting romance with heartbreaking poetry. When a disillusioned Alma is told John calls her an "angel of mercy," she points to the stone angel fountain and replies, "This is the only angel in Glorious Hill. Her body is stone and her blood is mineral water."
Such beautiful, precise language—and such compelling characters—transcend any of the production's misfires.
It helps to have two strong actors in the leads. Jane Cortney shines as Alma. She underscores Alma's inherent delicacy with a surprising strength and subtle flashes of humor. She's no steel magnolia; she's an iron butterfly. Together with director Heffernan, Cortney creates an Alma who is not so much in graceful meltdown but on the verge of resurrection. It's an interesting choice that grates only in the final scene, which, in this version, veers dangerously close to a happy ending.
Jonathan Kells Phillips gives John, Alma's would-be soulmate, a sense of grave mischief. Reading the script, you sometimes find it hard to believe that someone who spent as much time drinking, gambling, and carousing as much as John is purported could find time to be a doctor, much less graduate magna cum laude from Johns Hopkins. Kells Phillips makes it all seem possible. His John lusts for life but is nevertheless grounded by a quiet seriousness.
In general, the rest of the cast works well as an ensemble. Mac Brydon brings sharp comic timing to his wry portrayal of Roger Doremus, the mamma's boy and general dormouse of a man who wants to marry Alma. Watch him as he scurries to the loveseat and fans himself with a palm frond when confronted by his rival, John—it's a brilliantly funny moment of unspoken frustration. This moment punctuates the funniest scene in the play, the meeting of Alma's woebegone book club. It's a scene that allows actors in smaller roles to shine: Brydon as the rejected suitor, Corey Ann Haydu as a mousy bluestocking, Leigh Poulos as a meddling widow, and Zak Risinger as a brooding, silent poet.
Broadway veteran Deborah Carlson gives Alma's mother, Mrs. Winemiller, a startling imperiousness. She plays against type—maybe a little too much. Williams's stage directions paint Mrs. Winemiller as a childlike woman who's suffered a nervous breakdown, or at least staged one. She sits at home all day putting puzzles together and demanding ice cream. Carlson downplays Mrs. Winemiller's babyishness to the point of non-existence, imbuing her with a rigid authority and precise diction. Somehow, you don't believe this woman would consent to stay home with puzzles and ice cream—she'd slam the door on her husband and run for President. Nevertheless, Carlson's portrayal does make you rethink the role.
In all, this Summer and Smoke may not smolder, but it does have some heat.