EmptyPaper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, N.J.
Through Feb. 11
Stars Amanda Plummer and Kevin Anderson are the main reasons to see this excellent regional revival of Tennessee Williams' 1947 drama "Summer and Smoke." But the co-production from Paper Mill Playhouse and Hartford Stage, lovingly directed by Hartford's artistic helmer Michael Wilson, also provides the chance to see this uneven play with clear-eyed understanding of both its strengths and its flaws.
Set in a Southern town one summer before the beginning of World War I, "Summer" poses a conflict familiar to Williams devotees. Alma Winemiller (Plummer), the passionate but Puritanical daughter of the local minister, loves John Buchanan Jr. (Anderson), the sensual, hard-drinking son of the town's longtime physician. Their mutual attraction, however, is out of sync. When John offers seduction, Alma declines. By the time she accepts, he has moved on.
Productions of "Summer" usually have suffered from the exaggerated contrast between Alma and John, with actresses portraying Alma as ridiculously hysterical and actors playing John as one-dimensionally macho.
Under Wilson's astute direction, however, Plummer's Alma, aging slightly and no longer youthfully slim or pretty, truly believes in the primacy of soul over sexuality. And Anderson's John, towering over Plummer and overtly, carelessly sexual, is truly pained by his self-destructive behavior. In this production, both the sexual man and the fearful woman are victims.
Indeed, Plummer and Anderson bring nuances to their roles. Plummer's delicately moving performance reveals Alma's long-buried anger as well as true generosity of spirit. In Anderson's John, there's poignant loss when he finally rejects his dissolute life.
Williams gave so much attention to his main characters that he neglected the surrounding figures. Director Wilson amends this as much as he can. On Paper Mill's wide stage, dominated by an expanse of blue sky and bare except for a fountain in the form of a stone angel, Wilson manages to create the feel of a dilapidated Southern town. Here Alma's father, Rev. Winemiller (Jack Davidson), treats his daughter like a hostage, while Alma's mother (Jennifer Harmon, in a marvelously eccentric performance) defies both husband and daughter by going noisily, irritatingly mad. Here, too, John's girlfriend Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) hopes that sex will take her to the right side of the tracks.
"Summer" will never match "The Glass Menagerie" or "A Streetcar Named Desire" for power and complexity. But this sensitive, respectful revival provides new insights into a challenging play.
SUMMER AND SMOKE
Produced by Paper Mill Playhouse in association with Hartford Stage
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Director: Michael Wilson
Scenic designer: Tony Straiges
Costume designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting designer: Rui Rita
Original music, sound designer: John Gromada
Rev. Winemiller: Jack Davidson
Mrs. Winemiller: Jennifer Harmon
Dusty, Archie Kramer: Curtis Billings
Pearl, Rosemary: Elizabeth Capinera
John Buchanan Jr.: Kevin Anderson
Dr. Buchanan Sr.: Nafe Katter
Alma Winemiller: Amanda Plummer
Rosa Gonzales: Stephanie Beatriz
Nellie Ewell: Marta Reiman
Mrs. Bassett: Johanna Morrison
Roger Doremus: Bill Kux
Vernon: John Ort
Papa Gonzales: Mateo Gomez