This production of Tennessee William’s ‘Summer & Smoke’, the first in the UK in ten years, is tastefully executed and does due justice to the work of a true master. The play charts the tumultuous relationship between Alma, a preacher’s daughter with a heart of gold, and John, a charming but morally ambiguous young doctor.
The play explores the delicate boundaries of sensuality and spirituality through a slowly blossoming, bittersweet summer romance. What place does the soul have in the human anatomy chart? Does love reside in lust or in the heart? The two lead actors, Natalie Lauren (Alma) and Leo Danczak (John), sensitively bring to life these timeless questions as two grown-up childhood friends in a small Mississippi town. The actors adroitly and seamlessly execute scenes that are charged with bite-size sexual tension; portraying the awkward budding romance with remarkable attention to detail. This is most deftly captured in the fireworks scene, when the two sit side by side on a bench, highly-strung Alma fidgeting and ruffling her skirts amid the pastel flashes of the fireworks. The audience is immediately drawn to Alma, Lauren’s portrayal of her shyly disarming demeanor makes us wary of her quickness to trust her childhood friend.
The makeshift window placed in the centre of the stage marks the division between Alma and John’s neighboring houses and possibly the division between their irreconcilable worldviews. Wandering in their respective halves of the stage, throwing furtive glances through the window, and twirling the phone-cable around their fingers in anticipation of a call, the two characters are close, yet apart. As Alma struggles to ignore the village gossip surrounding the doctor, she is tormented by her resolve to differentiate love and seduction.
It is tastefully executed and does due justice to the work of a true master
The production’s dedication to making the play believable is obvious, particularly notable in the adoption of an Southern American accent which is bravely and consistently attempted by the entire cast. The costumes and makeup are surprisingly resourceful for a student production, including greying hair, well-crafted wrinkles, and carefully chosen costumes that rendered even necessary anachronisms endearing. These enhanced the quality of the production as a whole. The minimalist lighting and the intimate space of the Burton Taylor studio was also used effectively to capture the tone of Tennessee William’s play.
Although the production mostly adheres to the original play, there were effective and often tongue-in-cheek creative inputs from the production team. Double-casting of Olivia White for the role of Nellie and Rosa gave the play an ironic edge, whilst Ela Portnoy’s double-casting was used instead for comic effect. The cast was strong, with Ela Portnoy’s whimsical performance as Mrs. Winemiller providing much-needed comic relief.
The set changes frequently throughout this thirteen-scene play, but one piece of the staging remains constant from the opening to the denouement of the play. The angel-fountain at the centre of the stage, situated behind the window separating John and Alma. As the location of their childhood memories together, the fountain is the only unchanging facet of what is a dynamic relationship. Yet, as Alma bitterly declares, the angel’s body ‘is stone, and her blood is mineral water’. This play is not a light-hearted love story one would expect of a quick summer romance, but a smoke filled play about the destruction of ideals, of tables turning and of a love that is mutual yet dissonant. The questions of morality and love it poses are not resolved, but dominate the stage broodingly, as ambiguous as the blind angel-fountain at its centre.