The Detroit News features “Summer and Smoke”

Hilberry tackles Williams’ heated ‘Summer’

By Lawrence B. Johnson, Special to The Detroit News

Read original article here.

Tennessee Williams’ 1948 play “Summer and Smoke” might be viewed as the conceptual twin of its immediate predecessor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Both are psychological dramas that explore the yearning of a woman to translate sexual passion into spirituality and thus insulate herself from the stain of reality. In “Streetcar,” the famously delusional woman is Blanche DuBois. In the far less familiar “Summer and Smoke,” which opens Friday night at the Hilberry Theatre, the conflicted soul is a minister’s daughter, Alma Winemiller.

“Alma is closely related to all of Tennessee Williams’ other women,” says Lionel Walsh, who teaches theater at the University of Windsor and is directing Hilberry’s graduate student production. “They want to embrace this beauty that reaches up beyond the earthly, like a gothic cathedral, as Alma says, ‘reaching up to something beyond attainment.’

“‘Summer and Smoke’ — like ‘Streetcar’ — is about how society is intolerant of that idealism in a human being, and how that vision gets destroyed. Blanche loses all touch with reality. Alma ends up going for the most severe form of reality.”

Andrew Papa as John and Lorelei Sturm as Alma

Williams’ setting is Glorious Hill, Miss., in a time frame extending from around 1900 to about 1916. Alma’s psychological journey begins with a heated, indeed simmering, attraction to the young doctor John Buchanan, a man energized not by spiritual idealism but by sexual passion. But Alma — whose name means soul in Spanish — contains herself, arms herself against the doctor’s advances. As events progress, she comes round to quite a different outlook.

“You can play Alma as an eccentric, but you need to find the points where she comes down to earth, even if only for a moment or two,” Walsh says. “John is this burning fire and Alma is the moth flitting around him. When she alights and is still, you see why he would draw her to him.

“A lot of Alma’s eccentricities are cunning protections, unconscious devices that kick in as she searches for a beauty that leaves behind the ugliness. The idea of physical sex is repulsive to her.”

While “Summer and Smoke” marks the Canadian’s first directorial work on a play by the Southern American playwright, Walsh feels he got a genuine immersion in Williams’ world decades ago as a post-graduate theater student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

“I still remember walking to school that first day, in late August, when the air was heavy and the vegetation was so lush I had to duck under it,” he says. “It started to get claustrophobic. I thought, ‘I get Tennessee Williams now.’ Something inside me had a feeling for him.”

The primary challenge of connecting young actors with Williams’ complex characters, says Walsh, is getting inhabitants of a Twitter world to make eye contact.

“Our culture has let go of that,” he says. “But you can’t have subway face on stage. You can’t stare — you must look. Our job is to put the human spirit out there in full view. You can’t do that without the kind of relationships that come from direct communication.”

Lawrence B. Johnson is a cultural writer and critic. lawrencebj@gmail.com

‘Summer and Smoke’

Hilberry Theatre
4743 Cass Ave., Detroit
8 p.m. Friday, through April 21
Tickets $12-$30
Call (313) 577-2972
http://www.Hilberry.com

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