Given the British propensity for disinterring minor Tenneseee Williams plays, it’s startling to discover this is the first West End production of the hardly insignificant “Summer and Smoke.” Williams’ gift waned in later life, but this minor-key musing on sex and sensibility dates from 1948, when the going was good. British critics have saluted this “discovery,” but director Adrian Noble’s production fails to make a convincing case.
With the exception of Rosamund Pike’s ultimately affecting Alma, everything is encapsulated by Deirdre Clancy’s pitch-perfect, cream-toned costumes: elegant but superficial.
Observing the play’s unmissable assembly of opposites — prissiness vs. passion, conditioning vs. character, manners vs. feelings, hope vs. happenstance — the production flattens rather than flatters the writing by inhabiting uneasy extremes.
Take Chris Carmack’s handsome but vapid John. The actor knows his character represents sex so he’s permanently louche and self-consciously sexualized. Yet as John moves toward a degree of self-enlightenment, he wonders aloud how anyone could have “slid so far down as I have this summer.” For that line to work, auds have to see where he has fallen from, but Carmack never even indicates the uptight past from which John has escaped. Putting him into a dark suit for his last scene is not enough.
Furthermore, his movement and manners are considerably more modern than the play demands. Yes, he’s a provocative character, but in a pre-1920s tight-knit society in which conventional behavior is not so much expected as demanded, sitting in public right next to a refined woman with his legs slung wide apart is beyond unsubtle.
It’s also anti-dramatic; making the subtext so overt leaves auds nothing to discover for themselves.
That overstressing of what should lie beneath infects nearly all the actors, including Pike. The local gossips, especially a highly vigorous Kate O’Toole, announce that they can see Alma’s lust a mile off. That’s only an interesting line if Alma is trying to disguise her feelings. In this production they’re written all over her face, her body, her every move. If she’s viciously kicking someone off the sofa to make room for John at her literary evening, what’s left for anyone to discern?
Peter McKintosh’s unusually bland, blond design of wooden walls and shutters demarcating Alma and John’s houses doesn’t help. Not only do the rooms lack solidity, they’re set against an abstracted blue-and-white skyscape backdrop. The latter is stipulated by Williams, but this rendering is intrusive and intransigent in terms of lighting. Nor does it sit well with the onstage rain pouring down onto the set, especially in the final scene. There, despite the downpour, Pike and Michael Brown sit as if nothing is happening.
Even more bafflingly, in the penultimate scene, Noble and McKintosh change perspective, leaving the actors to play the scene as if there were a window in the nonexistent fourth wall. Having acted with realistic props and set all night, Carmack suddenly mimes opening a window.
Lighting designer Peter Mumford is responsible for the production’s single most powerful moment. John breaks down resistance by coming to Alma’s house at night. As he sinks into her lap, the light snaps into a shaft of powerfully hard white, inducing a shiver of pleasure.
Infelicities aside, the cumulative effect of Williams’ perennial concerns being overplayed in a script as expository as this is to push the tone close to parody. That everything doesn’t teeter over into yet another portrait of a terrified, febrile Southern woman drawn to but horrified by male sexuality is a tribute to Pike, who is pushed dangerously close to caricature but pulls herself back from the brink.
She delivers the showdown scene with impressive composure. Her heart and mind finally connected, she confronts John. Alma’s timing is off; not so Pike’s. Her depiction of the fraying tension between public veneer and private passion is beautifully understated and involving. But for this awkward production, sadly, it’s too late.