Hilberry actors struggle to find the soul in Tennessee Williams’ ‘Summer and Smoke’
By John Monaghan
Detroit Free Press Special Writer
Read original article here.
“Summer and Smoke,” set in the early years of the 20th Century, is a dialogue between body and soul, between the sensory and spiritual.
Tennessee Williams’ 1948 drama is long, talky and something of an endurance test for actors, and the cast of the current Hilberry Theatre production deserves praise for passing it. However, the play is also ripe with passion, which lies beneath the surface of nearly every line Williams wrote, and the young Hilberry actors aren’t always able to muster enough of it.
Minister’s daughter Alma (Lorelei Sturm) and John (Andrew Papa), the ne’er-do-well son of a prominent doctor in a small Mississippi town, have known each other since they were kids, and we first encounter them onstage while they’re attending a fireworks display. The flashing lights and subtle popping suggest that Alma has carnal desires that are waiting to explode.
John is training to be a doctor, but he spends most of his free time at the casino and strongly desires to take Alma along with him. There are rooms there where a man and a woman can go for privacy. Alma, however, declines his invitation.
An anatomical chart in the doctor’s office serves as a symbol in “Summer and Smoke” and sheds light on John’s mind-set. Relying on pure science, he can point to the parts of the body that have to do with sensual pleasure, but he challenges Alma to pinpoint the soul. The profound effect he has on Alma is communicated clearly by Sturm’s handling of the role — a challenge for any actress because of the sheer number of lines it involves. Like a lot of Williams’ Southern heroines, Alma is proud and fragile at the same time, something she reveals in a soul-baring moment when she changes her mind about John’s romantic overtures and implores him to make her a second offer.
The Hilberry production boasts mostly solid performances from more than a dozen student actors. Papa looks fine in John’s script-dictated white suit, though he never fully convinces us that he’s the bad boy that Alma has so long pined for. Vanessa Sawson defiantly tosses her curls as Rosa, John’s disreputable girlfriend. Edmund Alyn Jones makes the most out of his small role as Rosa’s violence-prone father, and if Danielle Cochrane plays it too broad as Alma’s uncouth stepmother, she at least adds a little spice in the proceedings.
Peter Schmidt’s set design includes a stone fountain shaped like an angel that presides over the action at center stage. Several characters drink from it, and while it may briefly quench their thirst, it also fills them with more questions than answers about love, longing and human nature.
“Summer and Smoke” is being directed by Lionel Walsh, a University of Windsor theater professor imported to Detroit for this production. He clearly has an academic handle on the material, but this production ultimately raises questions similar to those posed by the play itself. Yes, it’s physically impressive, but I’m still not convinced of its soul.
CONTACT FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER JOHN MONAGHAN: MADJOHN@EARTHLINK.NET.
More Details: ‘Summer and Smoke’
out of four stars
In rotating repertory through April 21
4743 Cass, Detroit