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Summer And Smoke
Almeida Theatre, London
REBECCA FRECKNALL’S production of Summer and Smoke triumphantly elevates it from the category of a minor Tennessee Williams work to stand beside his major achievements. Initially unsuccessful and rarely performed, the play immediately followed his major 1947 success, A Streetcar Named Desire.
The director ignores Williams’s characteristically meticulous stage directions that always sought to escape the confines of naturalistic realism, the hallmark of mid-20th century US theatre. With the flexibility allowed by modern staging, Frecknall’s production would surely have delighted its creator.
On a bare cockpit stage and against a background arc of nine pianos, the battle between the spirit and the flesh is fought out between Miss Alma, the hysterically repressed minister’s daughter, and the hedonistic son of the local doctor she has idolised since childhood. Their conflict is as much within themselves as with each other. Class and sexual tensions lack the visceral intensity of that between Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois in Streetcar.
The autobiographical underpinning Williams’s plays always embodies the poetic voice of loneliness, focused principally on his women characters. Here Patsy Ferran as Alma – Spanish for “soul,” as she reminds us – magnificently captures the desperation of a woman who feels she has had her youth stolen from her owing to her domestic situation. But the main cause of her fits of nervous hysteria is her religious self-denial of her sexual needs.
Matthew Needham as John is equally tortured by the driving force of his nature, denying the social demands of his profession in search of more earthy satisfactions. Alma’s eventually successful attempts to “save” him result in mutual defeat and a tragic reversal of roles in which both sacrifice themselves to unfulfilled lives of virtual isolation.
Essentially a two-hander, there is nonetheless splendid support from Anjana Vasan as Rosa, the woman who can satisfy John’s sensual needs, and Nellie, for whom he eventually sacrifices himself. Nancy Crane is Alma’s mother — the cross she and her father must bear — but who, in her demented state, sees all.
Frecknell avoids Williams’s heavy symbolism – there's no “significant” stone angel as a centrepiece — allowing the musical cadences of his language to carry the play.
This is no “steamy slice of America,” as one critical review of an earlier production termed it,but a moving and often humorous portrayal of the human need to escape the prison of loneliness.
Runs until April 7, box office: almeida.co.uk
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