Matthew Needham and Patsy Ferran in Summer and Smoke
Matthew Needham and Patsy Ferran in Summer and Smoke
© Marc Brenner

Will they, won't they, will they, won't they? Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke, first staged in 1948 after the success of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, is a push-and-pull romance which plays out over one hot summer in Mississippi. It's less known than his earlier plays, and performed less, too, but you can clearly see the Williams stamp: southern belles, high society, social expectations, loneliness, a grapple between the head and heart, body and soul.

Rebecca Frecknall directs a revelatory production of it here, infusing it with music (nine upright pianos are the stage's backdrop) and dropping with stuffy naturalistic sets and lights-down scene changes. Instead she favours fluidity, where scenes bleed into each other while several of the cast double on roles.

It all provokes a sharp sense of the claustrophobic continuation of time in the world of uptight preacher's daughter Alma and wayward doctor's son John. Next-door neighbours since forever, the two's connection is palpable from the moment John returns to their home town after time away training to be a doctor. Alma's sense of social duty, and of the god she has inherited from her father, stops her from coming too close to John, despite him making it clear he wants her. Meanwhile his drinking, gambling and compulsive relationships with women repulse her. He's all body and she's all soul and every time they meet their world viewpoints get in the way.

It is as quietly, stirringly tragic as any other Williams play you'll see, and it's written with a rhythm which combines poetry and the everyday to offer a rich evocation of small-town torment lying under the surface. Patsy Ferran plays Alma and though there are two in this affair, Summer and Smoke is in the main about her own transformation.

Ferran is superb, her accent spot-on – even in its posh elongation of its As which stand her apart from the rest of the town – and her nervousness is beautifully set down. She gulps down air in shallow breaths, has a nervous laugh, fiddles with her ring, collar and neck as she tries to talk to the one who is making her heart flutter almost visibly. Everything about her performance is subtle but clear, Alma's not hard to watch like Williams' Blanche DuBois is so often played (there are similarities, though the characters are very different). Tension is wound and wound inside her and it bursts out in several separate moments of physical explosion. At peak unhappiness she cackles at the top of her voice, hyperventilates and stumbles around the stage. It's like she's a firecracker, waiting to go off and the chemistry between her and Matthew Needham's John is off the scale.

Needham is a strong, solid presence next to Ferran, offering a performance which stands a little back from Alma's intensity but which is nevertheless as compelling. The rest of the cast are all also great, with Nancy Crane funny as Alma's mentally ill mother who likes to make trouble and Anjana Vasan luminous as she brilliantly weaves between John's two other, very different, love interests. The whole cast play haunting songs from the pianos, which also work as percussion, strings – at one point a bow is drawn through the piano's inner-workings – and even lights too.

But what keeps everything rolling is the bewitching portrayal of the unhappy couple, their longing delivered up with sad frustration as they are bound by society's rule and both their fathers' domineering presence. "I'm more afraid of your soul than you're afraid of my body," says John at one point, and by the end of the play we witness what happens when fear gets in the way of a heart's fire. A spellbinding, brilliantly acted revival.

Summer and Smoke' runs at the Almeida Theatre until 7 April.