It’s Steamy Hot in the Mississippi Delta

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Tennessee Williams, Summer and Smoke

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Alma Winemiller and her next-door neighbor, John Buchanan, have known each other since they were children in a small town in the Mississippi Delta. Now in their early twenties, around 1915, they are involved in a romance that at times goes this way and at times that way. Anna is interested in sweet platonic, poetic love and John, a rabble rouser, wants to get Anna between the sheets. You can see the problem.

The struggles between John, who grew up to be a doctor, and Alma are the focus of Tennessee Williams’s lovely and tender 1948 play, Summer and Smoke, that is being given a dazzling revival at the Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th Street, in New York.

The Classic Stage production captures all of the marvelous language of Williams, dialogue that slides slowly off the tongues of the actors, especially the lovers. You can feel the hot summer heat of Mississippi on stage, the soft breezes of the Gulf and the slow beating of hearts. Like so many of Williams’s plays, it is told in languid conversations that seem to drip with Spanish moss. The performers all have a dreamy drawl and tell the tale slowly. The story gets hotter and hotter as the scenes fly by until the finale, when the relationship goes this way, that way and every which way.

The Classic Stage Company uses a stage surrounded by the audience on three sides. Except for a portrait of a statue in a garden, the stage is nearly empty. The only other props on it are a few chairs and a large board with an illustration of the human anatomy on it for Dr. John’s office. Yet, without much scenery, the stage is full of the steamy Mississippi Delta because of Williams’s glorious descriptive language. You canSEEthe homes of Alma and John, the library where the book club meets and the town gossips who annoy all, the clinic where Dr. John works, the glamorous Moon Lake Casino, just outside of town, where headstrong young Dr. John gambles the nights away and chases women, and the streets of the village. It is a wondrous look into a Mississippi village and its inhabitants, and its lovers, a hundred years ago.

The story is simple. John has just set up his practice in the home of his dad, also a doctor, in his hometown and started dating Alma, who loves him. They split when she refuses to go to bed with him and John takes up with the slender, sexy Rosa Gonzalez, the daughter of the owner of the Moon Lake Casino, who, unlike prim and proper Alma, apparently enjoys being behind closed doors with him

They split up after Rosa’s father, in a rage, shoots John’s dad. John is adrift but wait. Hold on! Here comes Alma back. She now tells John that her view of the world has changed and she wants him back and is willing to do anything—anything – to get him back (you get the picture).

Do they re-unite? Does true happiness find both of them at last on a hot summer night?

Much of the credit for the success of the play, surely one of Williams’s finest, must go to director Jack Cummings III. This play is staged in many different ways (once it was presented with nine pianos on stage) and always needs a fine director’s touch. Cummings does just that. He does not use much in the way of props but does an admirable job of moving the play along and having his actors use all of the space on the entire small stage. It is their looks, and moves, as well as conversation, that tells the story.

One drawback is that even though this is the pre-war South, you do not get much U.S. or Mississippi, history in it, other than a fever epidemic that sweeps through the area. Mississippi was more than a small town and lakefront gambling casino, but you don’t learn much about the state here. Then again, in this small focus love story, you do not need to know a whole lot.

The acting in the play is marvelous. Marin Ireland is thoroughly lovable as Alma, full of sweetness and hope. Nathan Darrow is impressive as the womanizing, carousing doctor who is looking for love anywhere he can find it but changes as the play unfolds. Other fine performances are by Phillip Clark as Dr. Buchanan’s dad, Hannah Elli as Alma’s friend Nellie, Elena Hurst as the seductive Rosa, and Tina Johnson as Mrs. Bassett.

Sumer and Smokeis one of Williams gems, along with A Streetcar Named Desireand The Glass Menagerie, the Classic Stage Company gives it a sweet, and yet thunderous, revival.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Classic Stage Company and the Transport Group. Sets: Dane Laffrey, Costumes: Kathryn Rohe, Lighting: R. Lee Kennedy, Sound: Walter Trarbach. The play is directed by Jack Cummings III. It runs through May 20.

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