by JK Clarke
The women of Tennessee Williams plays are easily identifiable. The older ones, usually mothers, are bitter and neurotic. The younger, neurotic and vulnerable, though usually sweet and endearing. The models for these women were Williams’ mother and sister, his family and childhood, in general, a mine for source material. But what made William a great playwright and what stands out in his better plays is that the women are not just one dimensional. And these characters are best played by remarkably accomplished actresses, such as Marin Ireland in Transport Group’s new staging of Williams’ 1946 play, Summer and Smoke now running through May 25 at, and in co-production with, Classic Stage Company. Ireland, always riveting (her performance in The New Group’s 2010 revival of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind was breathtaking) dominates this minimalist production of yet another Williams play centered around southern, small town characters isolated in wretchedness.
At its heart, Summer and Smoke is the tale of small town missed connections. But missed because of societal dictates which keep a young woman, Alma Winemiller (Ireland) from revealing her true self . . . about anything. Even Alma’s love interest, young John Buchanan (played as naive, obstinate and suave by Nathan Darrow), son of the town doctor, is initially a brat who has to rebel against the stifling and repressive social climate: his youthful indiscretions include drinking, gambling, and hooking up with the casino’s daughter (Elena Hurst as the surprisingly complex seniorita/temptress, Rosa Gonzalez), leading, of course, to tragedy.
When we meet the two central characters they are children in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, some time around 1900. Alma is examining reverently the town fountain—represented here by a framed photo of a fountain—and flirting with young Johnny. Just about everything is representational, the play being virtually free of props or set components. There are chairs, but no furniture; the set is wall-less, but characters walk carefully through unseen doorways and along non-existent paths. Nearly everything is pantomimed, beginning right away with the handkerchiefs Alma gifts a grimy Johnny; and ending with the special pills (likely morphine) for Alma’s “nerves” that grown John, now doctor, gives her to alleviate her “hysteria.” Ireland handles the exercise deftly, but on the whole the use of the device is distracting than instructive, and doesn’t seem to augment the story in any way. One of the few times a real prop is used it’s an obviously fake and plastic pistol, like one purchased at the time in a five and dime store.
In fact, director Jack Cummings III’s hyper-minimalist approach diminishes several otherwise inspired performances (lovely Hannah Elless as the younger, “other woman” Nellie Ewell; Tina Johnson as nosy neighbor Mrs. Bassett; and Barbara Walsh as Alma’s ice-cream-obsessed-long-gone-mad mother). One wonders why, for instance, despite the use of beautiful and impressive period costumes (Kathryn Rohe), the stark ecru-and cream rectangular set looks like the ladies footwear department at Bloomingdales, circa 1979, complete with drop ceiling and what may as well be (but isn’t) recessed lights (set design: Dane Laffrey; Lighting: R. Lee Kennedy). The only value it adds is a feeling of stifling repression, though the script and the acting manages to adequately convey that on its own.
The heart of Summer and Smoke is the absurd and unfair repression of Alma, a young who has the curiosity, intelligence and ambition to be a passionate, successful, learned woman. But the facts of where and when she lives, not to mention who she is (the minister’s daughter), make it impossible for her to become the woman she wants to be; it’s a circumstance that’s driving her mad, and evidently has had the same effect on her mother. Ireland inhabits Alma beautifully, but the strange, austere production design distracts from her character’s development. It’s like her mother exclaims, in the midst of a jigsaw puzzle (invisible and pantomimed, of course), “the pieces don’t fit! The pieces don’t fit!” They don’t. But certain ones manage to tell a story on their own.
Summer and Smoke. Through May 25 at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues). Two hours, 30 minutes with one intermission. www.classicstage.org
Photos: Carol Rosegg