REVIEW: Marin Ireland in “Summer and Smoke”
There are some actors you drop everything and move mountains to see on stage. For me, Marin Ireland is one of them. And fortunately, one need only trek down to the East Village to catch her giving yet another ravishing performance in a first-rate revival of Tennessee Williams’ rarely seen “Summer and Smoke” at Classic Stage Company.
Easily the best play yet in CSC’s 50th anniversary season, “Summer and Smoke”, which opened Thursday night in a co-production with Transport Group—another non-profit company that stages new works and re-imagines revivals by American writers—was Williams’ third major play to hit Broadway, premiering in 1948 following the colossal success of “The Glass Menagerie” (1944) and “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947).
This play clearly haunted the writer. In 1976, he produced a revised version re-branded as “Eccentricities of a Nightingale”, which he preferred. That play received a revival off-Broadway in 2008. Otherwise, this play hasn’t been seen in New York since a limited-run Broadway production by Roundabout Theatre Company in 1996—making it ripe for a revisit.
Set in Williams’ fictitious, mythical Glorious Hills, Mississippi in the early decades of the 20th century, Ms. Ireland plays Alma Winemiller, the unmarried daughter of the local preacher (T. Ryder Smith). Perpetually putting on airs with her showy erudition and affected speech, the eccentric Alma is given to fits of anxiety and has nursed a quiet, lifelong yearning for her next door neighbor, Dr. John Buchanan, Jr. (Nathan Darrow), who has now returned to town for summer as she and her father care for her infantile, mentally ill mother (Barbara Walsh). Aloof and lascivious, John is rebelling against the expectations and constraints of the family profession, taking Rosa Gonzalez (Elena Hurst), daughter of the local casino owner, for a lover while Alma’s true feelings simmer beneath the surface.
In less capable hands, it is easy to see how Williams’ heavy handed and melodramatic plot loaded with symbolism might miss the mark. Not so in this spell-binding production directed by Jack Cummings, III. Every performance is finely keyed to invite us to bask in the air of a warm Mississippi summer—an air thick with unresolved sexual tensions and frustrated dreams, accompanied by an original score composed by Michael John LaChiusa.
Dane Laffrey’s arresting set is stark: a white, rectangular platform with the audience on three sides, mirrored by a suspended white, rectangular ceiling. A handful of chairs and two easels complete the scene. No props. Few costume changes. Unfussy and focused, as is his technique, Mr. Cummings allows his actors, and the text, to shine uninhibited, in a space where the audience is never more than a few rows from the action. This vision pays dividends.
Central to the story is Alma and John’s philosophical debate: she striving for purity and moral behavior, guardian of her soul, and he indulging in hedonistic pleasures, rejecting that there is anything more to the body than its need to eat, search for truth, and make love.
An anatomy chart atop one of those aforementioned easels is placed opposite the other easel donning a rendering of a statute of an angel from the public square representing Eternity. The masked sexual attraction and theoretical battle between Alma and John plays out between these opposing forces—the temporal and the eternal, the physical and the spiritual—as the play ultimately questions the very purpose of life and nature of self-conception.
Amid these grander ideas, Williams gives fine treatment to the more grounded and intimate experience of what it is like for two people to have a powerful but inchoate connection never fully expressed. That agony, painfully beautiful, is embodied in Ms. Ireland and Mr. Darrow’s riveting and magnetic performances of this lyrical, low-rent Southern Gothic tragedy. Ms. Ireland’s arc is particularly astonishing and pitiful to observe. The balance of the cast is equally as sharp and entrancing, but she remains the main event—breathtakingly captivating in her richly layered performance.
This production of “Summer and Smoke” is a revelatory triumph and a fitting tribute to the enduring power and beauty of Tennessee Williams’ writing. Given the overlapping missions of both producing companies—Classic Stage and Transport Group—to revive and re-imagine classic works for new audiences, I’d say: mission accomplished.
Bottom Line: Marin Ireland gives a ravishing performance in a first-rate revival of Tennessee Williams’ rarely seen “Summer and Smoke”, jointly produced by Classic Stage Company and Transport Group. This lyrical, low-rent Southern Gothic tragedy is stripped to its bones by director Jack Cummings, III, allowing the actors to shine uninhibited and deliver riveting and magnetic performances. This play is a highlight of the spring season in New York, and should not be missed.
“Summer and Smoke”
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
New York, NY 10003
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: May 3, 2018
Final Performance: May 25, 2018