Curiously lost in the Tennessee Williams chronology between A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Summer and Smoke (1948, first and last seen in London in 1951) is a play of more than passing interest and importance. For one thing, Williams felt that he never wrote a better female portrait than Alma Winemiller, the Mississippi daughter of a preacher and his batty wife, who weighs the life of the spirit against the pull of carnality and messes up the math.
Alma is not a self-dramatising diva like Blanche du Bois, nor is she a tough incarnation of the life force like Maggie the Cat. She is a reflective, intellectually sensitive Southern belle who is in love with the young doctor, John Buchanan, she has known all her life. Over a long hot summer in 1916, her struggle with idealism in contrast to John’s uncomplicated “sinfulness” – this is a play as much about shame as about anything – is engaged with a diagrammatic, but always enthralling, inevitability.
The original title of the play, “Chart of Anatomy,” refers to the scene where John gives a lecture on bodily functions that has no place for the soul. The more poetic title Summer and Smoke is more in keeping with the overall atmospheric mood of the writing which, said Brooks Atkinson, one of the few New York critics to applaud the play on its first outing, has “the same mystic frustration and the same languid doom” as other, better known Williams plays.
Adrian Noble’s fine production, seen earlier this year at the Nottingham Playhouse, could not be better cast. Rosamund Pike is a perfect Alma, combining peaches and cream beauty with a steel thread of self-doubt and spiritual decency that I seem to remember eluding Geraldine Page in the 1961 film version. Ms Pike doesn’t allow the character to be consumed by spinsterishness; she creates a real sense of responsibility and fear in the choices and decisions she makes.
Opposite her, the handsome American actor Chris Carmack compensates for the cut-out cardboard-ness of John as written – Williams found it virtually impossible, he admitted, to bring the character to life – with a charismatic stage presence and a frightening animalism as he seduces first a local Mexican girl (Hanne Steen) and later, as his life choice, his own medical secretary (Talulah Riley).
The small Delta town cast of characters are revealed in Chekhovian detail in Noble’s direction, from the acidulated, pinched pair of Alma’s parents played by Christopher Ravenscroft and, rocking happily on her chair just this side of madness, Angela Down; to David Killick’s whiskery parental doctor and Kate O'Toole’s vicious neighbourhood gossip.
“Alma,” as we are reminded at least twice, is Spanish for soul, but the production never seems laboured, and the dominant design figure of the stone angel becomes a grim setting in the rain for Alma’s final tragic decision. Mamet one night, Williams the next: Peter McKintosh is the designer of the week, and other aspects of the technical production – Deirdre Clancy’s costumes and Simon Lee’s brilliantly evocative musical direction – are as good as any in the West End at the moment.