Written in 1948, Summer and Smoke is set in 1916 and explores the lasting damage of social and sexual repression on individuals unable to reconcile their inner conflicts. Tennessee Williams makes his characters’ plight even more heartbreaking by showing how – in their fight to control their desires and aspirations – they end up losing track of the truth they are actually seeking.
Folie à deux productions, in association with seeitinyourhead, have taken the bold decision of performing Summer and Smoke as an ensemble piece, with overpowering elements of physical theatre. Except for the two leads, the remaining four actors play multiple roles, taking on characters of various age groups. This becomes confusing, since there is not sufficient contrast between the character portrayals. Another disadvantage of the ensemble approach is that we are faced with young actors playing middle-aged and elderly characters which, again, demands too much effort on the part of an audience, and reminds one of drama school productions where, of course, that is perfectly acceptable.
Moreover, the heavy physical theatre element too often distracts from the text. Actors conspicuously eavesdropping on powerful, intimate scenes not only interferes with your concentration on the lines spoken, but adds a rather heavy-handed comedic character element which at odds with the subtlety of Williams’ language. Many of the physical theatre elements, such as the fireworks, are very inventive – but out of place here. Others, (like the white balloons) no doubt have a symbolic meaning but are, again, distracting. It seems that director Rebecca Frecknall, in her zeal to stamp her mark and style on the show, ends up competing with – rather than complementing – the text.
The minimal set is strangely cluttered. Wooden frames representing doorways remind too much of airport metal detector arches. Too many props appear scattered around without a definite purpose and – together with insufficient lighting – give the unclean sense of a bric-à-brac shop. Yet the design centrepiece of the play, the Angel in the town square, is strangely missing.
The Southern accents are inconsistent but, overall, the cast give strong performances. Kate Lamb excels as Alma Winemiller, a woman whose strong will is her deep sensitivity’s worst enemy. The character of Alma’s mother, Mrs Winemiller, is directed too much like Mrs Rochester in the attic, but Sarah-Jayne Butler’s performance is powerful. Jenna Smith gives her all to the parts she plays. She does not bring across the subtle female vindictiveness of Nellie Ewell but is truly gripping as the driven and embittered Rosa Gonzalez. William Donaldson has a very pleasant stage presence, doing justice both to flamboyant Papa Gonzalez and nerdy Roger Deramus. Curran McKay could perhaps accentuate the self-destructive inner conflict and dangerous charm of Dr John Buchanan but no doubt he will grow into the role. One struggles to imagine Jack Fishburn as two old men, but he does come into his own as the travelling salesman in the final scene, bringing freshness and charm to the role.
This production of Summer and Smoke lacks polish and is too busy trying to outshine the text. However, it is always deeply inspiring to listen to Tennessee Williams’ tight, thought-provoking and soul-stirring dialogue in which every word is exactly in the right place. If only the staging here were as focused.