The Almeida Theatre’s highly acclaimed production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, boldly and sensitively directed by Rebecca Frecknall, is now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre. It should not be missed. Less often performed than some of his more famous plays, the opportunity arises to hear the poignant language of Williams delivered with delicacy and passion amid a set that augments the narrative and focuses attention on the dialogue.
Surprising, captivating, fulfilling and original.
Written in 1948 Summer and Smoke is set in a classic Williams suffocating southern small town over several years following the turn of the century. Alma (Patsy Ferran) lives with her strict pastor father (Forbes Masson) and dementia-suffering mother (Nancy Crane). Her neighbour is John Buchanan (Matthew Needham), son of the local doctor (also played by Forbes Mason). Their lives are inevitably bound together through teasing childhood and into adult life. After his return from medical school their relationship becomes more complex though never fully blossoms.
Ferran displays Alma’s physical frailty in her opening scene as a quivering, nervous wreck of a child with respiratory problems. In moments of stress, or perhaps when the inner woman threatens to surface, these recur in later life, increasingly as a symptom of the mental conditioning and stifling morality that Alma’s upbringing has imposed on her. Ferran personifies the propriety and spiritual aspirations of a young woman who sounds more like an aging spinster. Needham espouses the ungodliness of John and challenges her in a meticulously controlled performance of a frustrated, drunken, womanising individual with a rational mind. They are two wonderfully controlled and beautifully interwoven performances that with great subtlety manage the profound changes that occur in their characters up to the last minute. At the end they are able to see the world through the other’s eyes, but by then each has moved on.
Occupying the stage for almost the entirety of two acts there are times when the play seems to be a duologue, but the interventions of other characters critically add to the drama, provide context and change the pace. Mason forcefully displays the controlling, interfering influence of two fathers, while Crane provides some humorous and observant interjections, indicating that all is not lost in her condition. Anjana Vasan, meanwhile, amongst other roles, proves to be an alluring temptress. Adding a sensitive and lighter moment of hope in the final scene, Seb Carrington in his West End debut provides a refreshing injection of new blood into this enclosed community.
Writing to Margo Jones, the first director of Summer and Smoke, Williams observed that the play ‘deals with intangibles which need plastic expression far more than verbal’. He supplied plenty of the latter and but also gave some ‘essential points’ for the set. Look in vain for any of those. The staging team with design by Tom Scutt, lighting by Lee Curran, sound by Carolyn Downing and composition by Angus MacRae have surely been far more influenced by Williams’ other observations that he wanted a ‘harmonious whole like one complete picture’, concluding that ‘an imaginative designer may solve these plastic problems in a variety of ways and should not feel bound by any of my specific suggestions’. This staging has been stripped back to wooden chairs and bare brick walls. An intriguing semicircle of seven pianos provide sounds that heighten the tensions and discords of this drama as well as separating scenes. Lighting reflects the changing moods and movements create the sense of space and location.
Frecknall has created a surprising, captivating, fulfilling and original interpretation of Summer and Smoke that is perhaps everything that Williams might have hoped for.