The early scenes of the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” instill about as much confidence as the nervous cat in the title of that other Williams play. The set seems to be on loan from other recent productions (suspended angel fountain from “Angels in America,” doll houses courtesy of “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Carousel”), the child actors are even stagier than usual, and the leading man projects little of the rakish charm demanded by his role.
But as Mary McDonnell glides into her role as one of the playwright’s wilted magnolias, any initial flaws in David Warren’s production fade as surely as any of Williams’ Southern belles. As Alma Winemiller, the sexually repressed spinster hopelessly in love with the hedonistic son of the town doctor, McDonnell rises above her own good looks (she’s hardly the plain Geraldine Page type usually associated with the role) to offer a convincing portrait of loneliness, need and (unlike the character’s “Streetcar” counterpart) survival, however compromised. Her performance gives the Roundabout production its center, even while the play calls for a more balanced dance between the spinster and young John Buchanan Jr. (Harry Hamlin).
“Summer and Smoke,” although too schematic to rank as one of Williams’ masterpieces, nonetheless offers enough of the playwright’s poetry to merit this first major New York production in 40 years. Warren has staged the melancholy tale on an open, airy set dominated by two large glass-like panes suspended over either side of the stage one bearing an anatomy chart to represent the doctor’s office, the other a steepled rectory that’s home to Alma, her minister father and snipishly batty mother. That dichotomy the physical vs. the spiritual is the theme of the play and the basis for its characterization. It should be a fairly evenhanded battle, but this production is so dominated by McDonnell’s superior performance that the production spins off-kilter. For starters, Hamlin, his handsome face showing some age, is too old for the role. His John, a medical student given to sensual pleasure, seems less youthful rogue than dissipated cynic.
He simply doesn’t convince that he’s on summer vacation from med school, and the stiff, brooding performance never meshes or sparks with McDonnell’s more nuanced turn. The play opens at the turn of the century, with Alma and John as children (a scene rendered all but incomprehensible by the forced Southern accents of the production’s two child actors). The prissy Alma’s schoolgirl crush on the headstrong John carries over to adulthood, as the action picks up 16 years later when John returns home for a summer in Glorius Hill, Miss. The two resume their odd, opposites-attract acquaintance, each giving voice to the other’s barely submerged desires: He represents her repressed sexual desire, she his longing for something more spiritual, or at least emotional. Their encounters, of course, are ill-fated. Alma invites John to a poetry reading, at which even she’s embarrassed by the pathetic lonely-hearts in attendance. He, in turn, takes her to Moon Lake Casino, where cock-fighting and an air of casual debauchery all but crush Alma’s faith in John’s potential.
The play’s turning point occurs when John’s decadent life brings tragedy upon his father, prompting the transformation (not entirely convincing) that brings John around to Alma’s way of thinking. But Alma, after something akin to a nervous breakdown, awakens to the desire she’s long suppressed, just in time to learn that her beloved John has chosen another woman. “Summer and Smoke” ends on a bittersweet note, with Alma taking a tentative step toward connection and finding herself relying, as it were, on the kindness of strangers. Although the acting is rooted in Williams’ lyric naturalism, the production has a vaguely impressionistic feeling. Staying fairly close to the playwright’s own stage instructions, bits and pieces of furniture establish place, while at times the entire performance space is awash in sky-blue lights and cloud projections, a pretty display that, like the production itself, adds nothing new or essential to the play.
Unlike Gregory Mosher’s recent Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which for better or worse dared toy with the conventional portrayal of Stanley, the current “Summer” takes no such risks. This despite the text’s Mexican stereotypes that beg to be re-imagined. With a few exceptions, the supporting cast is solid, with Celia Weston (as a busybody neighbor) and Todd Weeks (in several roles) the standouts. But this “Summer and Smoke” is McDonnell’s show, and if the production doesn’t rise to her standard, it certainly benefits greatly.