Dying breeds

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  September 27, 2006

SUMMER AND SMOKE: A lovely piece of work, lyrical, heartbreaking, and as redolent of Williams’s youth.
Tennessee Williams liked Summer and Smoke (at Hartford Stage through October 1) so much he wrote it twice — first under its original title and then as The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. The playwright identified with Alma Winemiller, the Mississippi rector’s daughter caught between body and soul, calling her “the best female portrait I have drawn in a play.” In Michael Wilson’s subdued yet sensual staging, Alma is portrayed by petite, angular Amanda Plummer as less high-strung, vaporous spinster trying to fan away desire than fierce little bird who for once gets to claw rather than flutter her way out of sexual repression. And Marc Kudisch as the dissipated doctor next door, whom Alma at once wants to bed and reform, complements her: the tenderly mocking Kudisch exudes a corporeal ease and power that’s a fair match for Plummer’s coiled-up, now gauzy, now guttural strength. In one scene, the carnally oriented young medical man forces his prim neighbor to study a chart of the human anatomy, comparing it with a tree that’s home to three hungry birds: brain, belly, and sex. He’s like a robust if inwardly rotting tree to her surprisingly gritty sparrow.

First produced on Broadway in 1948, in the wake of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke was not well received and had to be rehabilitated Off Broadway by José Quintero. But it’s a lovely piece of work, lyrical, heartbreaking, and as redolent of Williams’s youth as its more esteemed predecessors. Like Alma, the playwright spent part of his childhood in an Episcopal rectory and developed some affectations of his own. Not much happens in this recording of achingly missed connections resulting in, as Miss Alma puts it, tables turning “with a vengeance!” There’s a brief, melodramatic incident ending in tragedy, and Alma, her prudish purity “suffocated in smoke from something on fire inside me,” comes into the doctor’s yard just as he passes into hers. By play’s end, she’s parked by the town fountain looking to go the way of Blanche Du Bois.

But Wilson’s production of the 1916-set work is period perfect, adhering to Williams’s call for a skeletal staging dominated by the angel fountain and a changing sky. And the supporting cast conveys the stifling community of Glorious Hill, Mississippi — at the center of which are Plummer and Kudisch, whose out-of-synch dance of sex and spirit is as fiery and graceful as the play.
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