Almeida Theatre, London – until 7 April 2018
In between A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Tennessee Williams achieved varying degrees of commercial and critical success. Summer & Smoke (1948) – the first of the plays during this period – is undergoing a revival at the Almeida Theatre and makes for an interesting comparison with his other mature work.
At the centre of Summer & Smoke is the story of Alma (Patsy Ferran) and John Buchanan, Jr (Matthew Needham) – neighbours in Glorious Hill, Mississippi and as different as can be in terms of temperament. Alma is the daughter of Reverend Winemiller (Forbes Masson) and as one would expect in the Bible Belt at the turn of the century, she is mindful of her behaviour and who she keeps as company. As the son of a doctor who has seen death up close, John doesn’t believe there’s anything metaphysical about the human condition or its inherent suffering.
It’s a case of opposites attract, but as Alma and John walk in different circles and have different priorities, the odds are against them becoming a couple. In some ways John is like Cal Trask in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden – having spent his formative years without the influence of a mother, popular with young ladies his own age, but rebelling against the goodness of his father. While Alma’s mother is very much present in the household, her mental state has deteriorated, leaving Alma without a benign maternal influence and having to fulfil her mother’s official duties in the church.
As Alma, Farran’s performance anchors the play, engaging our empathy with her sensitivity and subtle wit. One of Alma’s ‘affectations’ is her laugh (which is an endearing character trait) but it is her panic attacks when she has trouble breathing that really gets under the skin. I found myself just as fearful as ‘Alma’ is at her inabililty to breathe properly. Excellent acting.
In terms of staging, director Rebecca Frecknall eschews naturalism for symbolism. Utilising the Almeida’s natural back wall, the crescent-shaped stage area has seven pianos around its circumference, which at any one time are played by at least two of the actor-musicians. The metronomes which accompany the music instantly convey the ‘oscillation’ of Alma and John’s respective philosophies – with each ‘dancing to a different beat’. As most of the cast play multiple roles, the dirt-laden, circular ‘bare’ stage provides a suitable backdrop for the free-flowing action.
So what can we learn about the human condition from this play? Certainly, it is possible for people to ‘walk in others’ shoes’ and change of their own accord over time. However, timing is everything and what determines if-and-when people connect is being in sync with the other’s emotional needs. Unfortunately, one’s ‘readiness’ isn’t necessarily determined by choice, just as one doesn’t necessarily choose who to love…