“Summer and Smoke” at the Hilberry finds perfect tension
The characteristic tension that powers Tennessee Williams’ plays – the pull of spiritual longing resisting the gravity of physical desire – finds a taut balance in this Hilberry Theatre production of Summer and Smoke.
Owing, we suspect, to his gift for lyrical dialog, Williams gets away with creating characters that are larger than life – archetypes who speak for an entire philosophical point of view, even while presenting very personal and private tragedies before a live audience.
Lorelei Sturm gives us an Alma Winemiller who is neither as delicate nor fragile as she’d like people to believe. Her conviction that mankind should strive for the unattainable, stretching upward like vaulted cathedral ceilings, is for her an absolute truth. But Alma is not the stoic angel she impersonates; it is her misfortune to be repelled by the men who come closest to her ideal, and physically attracted to her philosophical opposite, Dr. John Buchanan, Jr.
John is played by Andrew Papa, who brings to the surface those attributes that make us like this complex but essentially unlikeable character. He is attractive, intellectual and sympathetic, even as he is determined to seize carnal pleasure and sink into indolence, alcoholism and degradation. For John, who is destined to take over his father’s medical practice, man is defined by the Anatomy Chart. He points to the brain and knows it seeks truth; the stomach brings a hunger for food and drink; and sexual organs drive the longing for pleasure. There is no soul on the Anatomy Chart.
But this is a Tennessee Williams play, and irony has the final word. Under the direction of Lionel Walsh, that irony is ever present, though subtly brought to the stage, like the Fourth of July fireworks we hear in the distance, but only see as faint, colorful shimmers on the park bench where Alma and John meet. The omnipresent stone angel fountain, where Alma and John played as children, symbolizes both the eternal life of the soul and the cool drink that satisfies physical desires.
What becomes of the life of the spirit when the physical world conspires to crush it? If Alma is to be reborn, what form must she take to survive?
See Summer and Smoke at the Hilberry for Tennessee Williams at his best. The costumes (John D. Woodland), scenic design (Peter Schmidt), lighting (Samuel G. Byers) and sound design (Tyler Ezell) are especially lovely, and as always, the Hilberry company works together as a single, living, breathing organism. The cast includes Joshua Blake Rippy, Christopher Ellis, Danielle Cocherane, Vanessa Sawson, Edmund Alyn Jones, Megan Dobbertin, Alec Barbour, Brent Griffith, Sara Hymes, Topher Payne, David Sterritt, Laura Heikkinen and Matthew Kane.
Summer and Smoke runs in rotating repertory at the Hilberry with Frank Langella’s Cyrano and the upcoming Major Barbara until April 21, 2012. Tickets are $12-$30 and are available by calling the Hilberry Theatre Box Office at (313) 577-2972, online at the theatre website, or by visiting the box office at 4743 Cass Avenue on the corner of Hancock.