Marc Brenner

Summer and Smoke

Reviewer's Rating

‘You have a doppelganger,’ says John Buchanan (Matthew Needham) to Alma Winemiller (Patsy Ferran) in Tennessee Williams’ ‘Summer and Smoke.’ This line is emblematic of the very core of the play – its battle between body and soul, physical and spiritual, piety and fleshy impulses encapsulated in Alma Winemiller, a preacher’s daughter, and John Buchanan, a hedonistic doctor’s son. While the former represents the ‘soul’ in the name literally and spiritually, the latter stands for the visceral desires of the body. John shows Alma an anatomy chart and explains how the head looks for truth, the stomach looks for food and the genitals look for sex. Alma insists that there is much more than these carnal desire, that there is a soul within the body that cannot be seen. In this sense, they are two parts of Williams’ existential coin, struggling to achieve a higher consciousness beyond the material world.

The play is set in Glorious Hill in Mississippi, a similar version of the town Clarksdale where Williams grew up. Like Alma, Williams was also raised in an Episcopal rectory where his grandfather was pastor of St George’s Church. It is no surprise that Williams explores how antiquated tradition and religious dogmas can create an unstable personality. Alma’s mother has completely lost contact with reality; Alma suffers from severe anxiety and nervous breakdowns that makes her into a recluse. She has been conditioned to behave according to her puritanical upbringing, and as a consequence, displays a very strict moral attitude towards self indulgence and sex. However, by the end of the play, she reveals an underlying passion for John, a feeling she has been trying to repress all along but cannot any longer, ‘It is no longer a secret that I love you. It never was. I loved you when I asked you to read the stone angel’s name with your fingers…yes, it had begun that early, this affection of love’

The simple setting consists of exposed brick, sand and nine pianos in the shape of a shoe – string. This effectively heightens the drama and the tension throughout the play. The love making scene is choreographed perfectly and the intimate moments, tantalizing. Alma’s inner turmoil is expressed through overturned chairs and dissonant chords on the piano; reinforcing the theme of isolation and loneliness as human psychological condition, and the need that we all have for a deep, meaningful relationship.