Say you’re Tennessee Williams. The Glass Menagerie, which almost didn’t make it to New York, was an empyrean success in 1945. It ran for 561 performances and vaulted Williams to the heights. It also raised a huge question: How to follow such an achievement?
“I felt a great depression,” Williams wrote in his Memoirs, “probably because…I never thought my advance would maintain its ground…there would be a collapse immediately after.”
Between 1946 and ’47, Williams worked hard on two plays at once. In December 1947, he sent one to Broadway and knocked Glass Menagerie off of its pedestal. A Streetcar Named Desire ran for 855 performances at the Barrymore and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
The other play was Summer and Smoke. Williams composed like Beethoven, writing and revising, trying to release an initial impulse in words, revising again. With Smoke, he knew he had something, just not quite what. When he read the fifth (or tenth) draft to a friend, the response was “How could the author of The Glass Menagerie write such a bad play as this?”
Hindsight makes clear that what was in the mind of the author was confusion. Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire from the inside-out: the story evolves out of characters, passions, friction. Put Blanche DuBois in that situation and anything could happen; what does becomes inevitable only after the fact.
Williams wrote Summer and Smoke from the outside-in. He began with a unique creation, Alma Winemiller, but then plunked her in a world so symbolic it all but strangles her, and the play.
What’s supposed to be real sounds like a crash course in Jungian archetypes. Alma’s the preacher’s daughter in Glorious Hill, Mississippi. So, stage right’s a church rectory; stage left, Dr. Buchanan’s office, where his son John — on whom Alma has cast an eye for decades — cavorts with a dark woman dressed in red. In Spanish, alma means “soul.” An anatomical chart hangs from the doctor’s wall, in case anyone missed the soul/body separation. Between the two structures, on a slight rise, an angel made of stone looks down on a fountain. Its name, worn to obscurity by hundreds of hands, is “Eternity.”
Few plays have ever received this much authorial help. Alma, the soul, seeks a transcendent love. John, the rake (but also a magna cum laude doctor), can’t find anything spiritual in his anatomical charts. So he cavorts at Moon Lake Casino (“where anything goes”), much to Alma’s fluttery chagrin. He even diagnoses Alma at one point. Her nervous heart trouble’s actually an “irritated doppelganger,” a repressed second, more physical self. “Eternity and Miss Alma,” he says, “have such cool hands.”
Williams not only spoon-feeds symbolism, his plot forms a perfect X: Alma begins top left; John, bottom left. They pass each other at some point in the middle, she falling, he — not quite believably — rising.
Summer and Smoke is overly schematic and explanatory (at two points the pieces to a puzzle don’t fit, duhh!). It privileges meaning over being. But this is Tennessee Williams, after all. He has extraordinary flights, as when he calls love “that long word” and the heart “that little red fist that’s got to keep knocking, knocking against the big black door.” And Alma, he says in his Memoirs, “may well be the best female portrait I have drawn in a play.”
The New Village Arts staging is almost two different stories in two different styles. One’s about Alma, played with roiling intensity by a terrific Jo Anne Glover. Williams’s characters, especially the leads, have an extra dimension. They aren’t larger than life; they are life in the extreme. How to hit that mark without overacting is the challenge in all his plays. Nervous, wrapped so tight she finally unspools, Glover achieves it throughout. As John says, she is a “flame mistaken for ice.”
Except for a fine turn by up-and-comer Aimee Burdette as Nellie, who grows from ingénue to adult, the rest of the cast tilts toward comedy. Williams calls John Buchanan “a Promethean figure, brilliantly and restlessly alive…” with “demonic unrest,” but John De Carlo reins in extremes. His tepid performance is no match for Glover, who reined herself in, on occasion, to accommodate him. Dana Case plays loony Mrs. Winemiller for inappropriate laughs, the other actors, just one-note characters, at times for laughs as well.
Director Kristianne Kurner has done quality work before but here displays little sense of the appropriate style. One of NVA’s best scenes comes first: in a prologue, as ten-year-old Alma and young John play near the fountain, they identify themselves as “soul” and “devil.” It’s a touching, innocent moment. During every scene change, the two young actors do more business. But the choice falls flat. After a while, it’s just two kids running around and breaking the momentum the play’s trying to build. ■
Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams
New Village Arts Theatre, 2787B State Street, Carlsbad
Directed by Kristianne Kurner; cast: Jo Anne Glover, John DeCarlo, Roma Watkins, Jonah Gercke, Dana Case, Jack Missett, Lisa Dempsey, Sam Floto, David Macy-Beckwith, Nadia Guevara, Jared Spears, Aimee Burdette, Li-Anne Rowswell, Brian Abraham, Amanda Dane; scenic design, Tim Wallace; costumes, Mary Larson; lighting, Karin Filijan; sound, Adam Brick
Playing through June 20; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. 760-433-3245.