It’s hard to imagine “Summer and Smoke“ in better shape. Rebecca Frecknall’s spare staging takes a lesser Tennessee Williams play and reveals the great drama at its core — a devastating fable of half-requited love, missed moments and the ways we waste what little life we get. Transferring from the Almeida to the West End, it boasts it two phenomenal performances at its heart: Patsy Ferran is a quiver of anxiety as Alma; Matthew Needham’s John, a river of despair. You will them together, knowing full well they’re bound to tear each other apart. It’s agonizing to watch.
From its first arresting image — Ferran, spotlit, gasping for breath — “Summer and Smoke” never lets up. So much so that, on this evidence, it’s hard to fathom why it isn’t routinely considered among Williams’ best work. Frecknall makes the case for it by zooming right in, blurring its background. Her supporting cast play several parts each, more as archetypes than individuals — mothers and fathers, lovers and gossips — and as the small-town community starts to recede, the play’s full focus falls on its central pair: a brittle Southern belle and a beast of a bloke. That’s the Williams way, the formula he tweaks in play after play: Stanley and Blanche; Maggie and Brick; Laura and the Gentleman Caller who shatters her heart. Distilled, “Summer and Smoke” becomes a shot of Tennessee, neat.
Alma Winemiller is besotted with the boy next door, Doctor John Buchanan. She’s a fragile soul, a minister’s daughter whose mother has lost her mind, and he’s very much not, a doctor’s son who has taken to drink. Raised in a spiritual household, Alma (Spanish for soul) is unworldly, a pure-voiced singing teacher who’s too delicate for life. John, by stark contrast, is drawn to earthly pleasures: to abandon, to lust, to cruelty and, in spite of his baser instincts, to Alma. Her sweetness seems a salvo to his depressive self-destruction, but he can’t help himself. The more she dotes, the more viciously he swats her away — the fly to his wanton boy.
The pair couldn’t be more perfectly cast. Ferran’s mousy as Alma; Needham is wolfish as John. She’s always on tip-toes and he’s always at heel. Gulping down air and hiccupping up nervous giggles, Ferran wears her heart on her sleeve, so that everything she feels flickers, very visibly, across her face. John, watchful, circles her like a coyote stalking easy prey. You’re never quite sure what he’s up to or whether he’s sincere. He’s caring one second, a devoted doctor, then vicious the next, and Ferran’s Alma, “always mystified and amazed by unprovoked malice,” is too trusting not to get hurt time and again.
That’s the awful tragedy — two people bound together by a love that can’t come to bear, destined to ruin one another on repeat. Emphasizing the eternity invoked in Williams’ script with metronomes ticking and hymns floating overhead, Frecknall elevates their relationship to a metaphysical affair. Alma and John become opposing forces, two sides of human nature: light and dark, saint and sinner, spirit and flesh. But it remains, absolutely, a human drama. Ferran and Needham make you care deeply for the pair, whatever their wounds and their flaws.
Fittingly for a play that pits beauty against desire, it looks ravishing. Tom Scutt’s spare design encircles the stage with seven upright pianos, their casings open, their guts on show. As the company score the action live, sometimes with tinkles, sometimes tumbles of notes, the atmosphere’s spine-tingling. From these mechanical objects, beautiful sounds spring — a direct rebuttal to John’s reductive view that sees only bodies and leaves no room for souls.
Instead, everything pulls in two directions: godliness and devilry, darkness and light. Scutt’s semi-circlular stage suggests a cockfighting ring, even as the bare bricks behind it rise up like cathedral walls. Lee Curran’s lighting thickens the air with heavy golden hues and deep southern heat, but cuts across it with shafts of crisp, cold white light. It’s as if light and dark were doing battle overhead as two opposites attract, only to repel one another again and again.