The people in Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke are caught between anatomy and an angel named Eternity — but then, aren’t we all? Director Jack Cummings III’s gripping revival (a co-production of Classic Stage Company and Transport Group, of which Cummings is the artistic director) represents the play’s poles — body and soul — via a medical chart showing human innards and a blown-up photo of angelic statuary. The latter is meant to stand in for a stone fountain at the center of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, where the action unfolds during the early years of the twentieth century. We’re told that “Eternity” is carved in the base of the fountain. To borrow a phrase from the town’s uncommonly sensitive Alma Winemiller, doesn’t that just “give you cold shivers”?
The anatomy chart and the stone angel are pretty much the only visual aids you get in Dane Laffrey’s spare scenic design. Placed on easels, the figures face off from opposite corners of the set, a white rectangular platform bearing only a few chairs and no walls, with the audience sitting on three sides. This simple yet effective design is not only in keeping with the author’s production notes (Williams wanted more sky than furniture); the starkness of the staging can also fittingly feel, with help from R. Lee Kennedy’s lights, hot and arid one minute, chilly and antiseptic the next.
Mostly, though, the absence of scenery helps to strip away all distractions from the play’s central struggle between the sensual and the spiritual — sex and sensibility — embodied by Alma (an absorbing Marin Ireland) and the object of her fascination, John Buchanan (Nathan Darrow). Miss Alma, as she’s universally known, is the daughter of a severe minister (T. Ryder Smith) and his wife (Barbara Walsh), who cracked up some time back and now behaves like an unruly child. Trapped in the rectory by these circumstances, Alma has grown tightly wound and uptight when it comes to observing proprieties. The only enthusiasms she allows herself are of the hoity-toity variety: art, music, poetry. Other Glorious Hillers view her as a faintly ridiculous spinster with a tendency to put on airs: a true Marian the Librarian type.
But in fact, Miss Alma is burning up. Despite her avowed and seemingly genuine devotion to noble ideals, she is drawn as if by pheromones to John, the hedonistic doctor who lives next door and for whom she has a major case of the hots. Restless and worldly where Alma is hide- and homebound, John spends his nights drinking, gambling, and womanizing in places like the Moon Lake Casino, where he has a casual fling with the owner’s daughter, Rosa (Elena Hurst, whose ability to convey an intelligent seriousness brings a little dignity to a subplot full of unflattering Latino stereotypes).
Like Alma, John is more complicated than he appears, and that complexity is captured with nuance by Darrow. Though effortlessly seductive, Darrow’s physician is no brute like Stanley Kowalski in Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (which premiered just before Summer and Smoke’s own Broadway debut in 1948). Sure, John puts the moves on Miss Alma almost as if by compulsion, but it’s her high-mindedness that he admires. As John’s partying slumps into dissipation over the course of the play, Darrow supplies a kind of haunted vulnerability that adds poignancy to the character’s professed self-disgust. “Did anyone ever slide downhill as fast as I have this summer?” he asks. Instead of seeming ashamed or even perversely proud, Darrow recites the line as though bewildered at what he’s capable of.
Alma also lacks self-knowledge, at least at first, but Ireland’s take-charge performance turns her into a scorching presence onstage. That’s a change from Geraldine Page’s canonical take on the role in José Quintero’s storied revival at Circle on the Square Theatre in 1952; you can watch her Alma in the 1961 film adaptation. Judging from the movie, Page went the life-of-quiet-desperation route — all pained smiles and delicate heartbreak — but there’s nothing quiet about Ireland’s Alma. Her hidden passions aren’t repressed so much as redirected into crying jags; a gasping nervous laugh that sounds like she’s being choked; and breathless, runaway speeches in which she seems to be rhapsodizing about soaring Gothic spires, but you get the feeling she’s not just talking about Gothic spires.
Instead of a frozen surface with roiling currents underneath, Ireland’s Alma has the parched and overheated quality of an imminent forest fire, with a thrilling and destructive volatility to match. Her need is more apparent, and her manner more demanding, than in the standard interpretation of the role set by Page, which makes this Alma more exasperating and embarrassing for the people around her. But for the audience, Ireland’s gutsy depiction of what becomes a last-ditch grab for happiness is piercing and raw.
Ultimately, it becomes clear that the play’s showdown between body and soul isn’t happening between the two main characters but within them. In the series of one-on-one scenes with Alma and John that form the story’s core, they both make the case for their habitual stances, but we soon see that each wants to be proven wrong. Alma needs an outlet for her carnal side, while John yearns for a higher purpose beyond all the carousing. That’s what elevates the play above a mere argument, with characters representing unwavering viewpoints as if their heads were untethered from their hearts (and libidos). As is the case in his other great works, Williams’s artistry lies in revealing “those weak and divided people” (Alma’s phrase), who have the base and the divine all mixed up inside them.