Review: ‘Summer and Smoke’
‘They’re all a bit peculiar’ in sizzling rendition of lesser-known Tennessee Williams classic
Playwright Tennessee Williams had mommy issues. And sister issues. And mother-daughter issues. Hell, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author had issues with pretty much every member of the typical Southern family of America’s early-to-mid 20th century.
Add to that his neurotic obsession with sex – especially his fascination with repressed sexuality – and the die was cast for a series of dramas unlike any seen before in the world of modern-day theater.
One such work is the rarely-produced “Summer and Smoke,” a play some experts call a “minor masterpiece,” yet one with which Williams was never truly satisfied. Although it features the archetypical protagonists, antagonists and themes the playwright established in “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” other experts often frown upon “Summer and Smoke” because of its gentility and lack of fiery passion.
Something tells me, however, that Williams and his critics would be more than pleased with the version of his play now appearing at Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre!
Director Tony Caselli – known mostly for his excellent comedies staged at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre – has seamlessly blended various versions of Williams’ script to create a unique presentation that strengthens its characters while stripping it of its excess baggage. The result is a streamlined, riveting and very imaginative production that should excite both Williams aficionados and theater lovers alike!
Set in the South just prior to World War I, “Summer and Smoke” tells the story of a man of the world searching for his soul and a woman with a soul looking for a life. Alma Winemiller, a prim-and-proper preacher’s daughter, lusts after John Buchanan Jr., an up-and-coming doctor who returns to town after graduating Magna Cum Laude from Johns Hopkins University. Although the two are polar opposites, the attraction between them has smoldered since childhood.
The young doctor’s return isn’t a happy one – at least not for his father, the town’s much-respected physician who is embarrassed and concerned by his son’s carousing and bad attitude. The same is true for Rev. Winemiller, Alma’s uptight and not very godly father who is shocked to learn of Alma’s interest in the handsome lothario.
But an attraction to the daughter of the town’s casino owner leads to tragedy for John and his father. Will that draw the handsome young physician closer to his longtime friend? Or will it drive them even farther apart?
Ever mindful of budget and space constraints, Caselli adapted Williams’ straight-forward, slice-of-life drama into a stylized, presentational piece in which nine talented actors play 16 roles. Each scene begins with an actor offering a brief title or description that helps set the scene. As only a large statue ever changes location, blackouts are replaced by choreographed movements that allow the actors to proceed – in character – to their next positions. And the actors never leave the stage: Whenever they are not needed, they simply sit upstage behind the action and stay totally focused on what’s happening in front of them.
It’s a risky, tricky concept, but one that works exceptionally well.
Caselli’s transitions work smoothly and compliment the overall production. But most remarkable is his observant eye that never allows the seven actors who play multiple roles from ever deviating from their characters. It’s rare to find a single actor who can create two or more roles that are totally distinct, let alone seven who are called upon to work this miracle. Yet each does so – with nary a hint of confusion among them.
Particularly fine are the two actors Caselli chose to play the show’s primary roles.
Mindy Woodhead fills Alma with an innocent soul that is both heart-breaking and breath-taking to watch. And Barton Bund gives depth to the coldly calculating cur who is shocked back into reality by the death of his father. They compliment each other well from start to finish.
“Summer and Smoke” Presented Thursday through Sunday at Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor, through May 29. Tickets: $20 – $34.50. 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org.
The Bottom Line: Where there’s smoke there’s fire – and that’s certainly the case with this beautifully rendered version of William’s minor masterpiece.
Tidbits: Theater News from Around Town
Steppin’ Out with A2CT; Late Night at the Mosh Pit; SC Summer School
ITEM: The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and the Firefly Club are joining forces to raise funds for the longtime, popular community theater group.
“Steppin’ Out with Civic Theatre” is a cabaret-style benefit performance scheduled for May 17 and 18 at 8 p.m. at the renowned Firefly Club, located at 207 S. Ashley in Ann Arbor. The evening will feature Civic performers and alumni in a series of jazz standards, classical numbers and show tunes. Also included will be a preview of the Civic Theatre’s upcoming production of “Cabaret.”
Tickets to the fundraiser are $15.
For information and tickets, call the Civic Theatre box office at 734-971-2228 or go online to http://www.a2ct.org.
ITEM: This month’s Red Eye Late Night Festival at the Mosh Pit – the black box theater that opened last fall at the Performance Network – debuts this week with “Seed,” a collection of original short plays about love by writer Cherisse Montgomery and director Isaac Ellis.
The darker side of the Brothers Grimm is explored May 11 – 14 in “The Golden Goose,” an intriguing, ridiculous and hilarious adaptation by five local actors under the direction of Lynn Lammers.
“For Play,” a collection of short plays that looks at the silliness of our interactions, takes to the stage May 18 – 21 and features a veritable who’s who of local actors and directors.
The festival closes May 25 – 28 with a reworking of Barton Bund’s “Dirt,” an unflinching look at one of the most beautiful and terrifying places on Earth: the bedroom!
The Red Eye Late Night Festival runs Wednesday through Saturday nights. Curtain time is 11 p.m.
For reservations and information, call 734-663-0681 or log onto http://www.performancenetwork.org.
ITEM: Summer school starts in June for adults and youngsters ages 9 through 17 who are interested in studying theater and improv with the internationally acclaimed Second City.
Registration is now underway for classes and workshops that will be held in Second City’s new facilities in Novi.
For complete details, call 248-348-4448 or check out http://www.secondcitysummers.com.