After a sell-out run at the Almeida Theatre, Williams’s rarely performed Summer and Smoke has been transferred to the Duke of York Theatre.
Summer and Smoke tracks the tragic love story between Alma Winemiller, the parson’s daughter, and John Buchanan, the doctor’s son, in a small town, in the deep south where they grew up. Alma, literally ‘soul’ in Spanish, is the epitome of self-sacrifice, having prematurely assumed the role of her mother, who is mentally unstable. Showing clear signs of neurosis herself, Alma is highly strung and over-wrought. In contrast, John is unflinching, doing exactly as he pleases and continually disappointing his father. The attraction between them is evident, but their characters entirely incompatible; John wants to “fool around”, while Alma seeks something much deeper. The discordance between them is made only more tragic by the reversal in their philosophies by the end of the play. A year has passed, and Alma has traded her spiritual, intangible perception of love, for a material one, offering herself to John. In the meantime, John has “come around to Alma’s way of thinking [sic]”, turning his back on his defiant younger years, for a quiet and respectable marriage with a younger woman.
The intensity of emotion and feeling throughout the play is palpable. Rebecca Frecknall’s adaptation resists getting caught up in the details; the play is visually striking, a dramatic spectacle of human emotion stripped bare, which is at points difficult to watch.
The set reflects this. It resembles an underground bar: exposed brick walls, a semi-circle of seven pianos, and a microphone centre stage, waiting for a performance. What follows is over two hours of fragmented dialogue and gesture. The play is powerfully communicative without qualification from a narrator, or by other characters. Rather, the dialogue stands alone, forceful and raw. Patsy Ferran, as Alma, gives a remarkable performance of a truly multi-faceted character. Alma is both soulfully sensitive and physically desirous for John, endlessly stifled by her anxiety and the strictures of decorum. Her speech is disjointed, not unlike beat poetry, she gestures and moves rhythmically but with periodic twitches and convulsions that leave the audience on the edge of their seats.
Music accompanies the play’s action and dialogue almost as a third and equal component. At points, the seven pianos are played in collaboration to complement dialogue, or to fill silences. Then moments later, the inner strings of pianos are plucked and stretched, during moments of sheer anxiety and stress, a multi-sensory representation of Alma’s internal state – jangling nerves, stretching sinews. Time, already non-linear in this production, appears to slow almost to a standstill when John’s father dies; reality is suspended altogether as he freezes mid-air, the stage brightly illuminated as the dead man starts to sing in operatic fashion. The creativity and ingenuity of the mise-en-scène makes for a truly memorable and enjoyable production.
Summer and Smoke is a powerful play that seamlessly aligns Williams’s symbolism with an unforgiving reality. At the play’s close Alma has ditched her original ideals, and leaves with a travelling salesman, representing the very thing she previously denounced and scorned. Ostensibly a little light relief, an arbitrary happiness, but in reality, a depressing comment on how circumstances can grind down those who remain true to their spirit and dreams.