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Evan Michael Woods and Gretchen Hahn in <em>Summer and Smoke </em>from the Classics Theatre Project

Margo and Tennessee, Reunited

As the Classics Theatre Project revives Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke in the space where it premiered 72 years ago, director Emily Scott Banks discusses its significance.



published Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Photo: Evan Michael Woods
Evan Michael Woods and Gretchen Hahn in Summer and Smoke from the Classics Theatre Project

 

Dallas- Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke had its world premiere in the summer of the first season of Margo Jones’ theater in Dallas, called Theatre ’47, sponsored by Gulf Oil. It was directed by Margo Jones, who had cultivated a friendship with the budding playwright years earlier, and even co-directed his first play on Broadway, The Glass Menagerie. A year later, the play would open on Broadway—running simultaneously with A Streetcar Named Desire. Summer and Smoke was one of several plays given a chance by Jones that would become part of the American canon, along with William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stars (called Further Off from Heaven when Jones premiered it); and Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind.

Beginning with previews on May 30, The Classics Theatre Project will present the play in the same theater, a historical building now called the Margo Jones Theatre. This will be the first time the play has been performed in that space since its debut over 70 years ago. Emily Scott Banks directs.

Joey Folsom, the company’s artistic director, says “[Since] I learned (back in college) about the event of this show’s original production and its place in local/national history, I've wanted to produce it in the original space. I feel it's an underrepresented element of Dallas' artistic and& cultural history and it goes to our company mission to offer and remind Dallas of its rich theatre history. It's something that offers accessibility to help to bring the community together and, hopefully, enrich the community and inspire them to support Dallas art as a point of pride.”

TCTP’s production features Gretchen Hahn as Alma and Evan Michael Woods as John. The cast also includes Chad Cline, Stan Graner, Jackie Kemp, Hannah Martinez, Leslie Patrick, Mary-Margaret Pyeatt, Van Quattro, Rachel Reininger, and Dean Wray.

In an email conversation, we spoke with director Emily Scott Banks, about the historical significance of this revival.

 

Photo: Courtesy Emily Scott Banks
Emily Scott Banks

TheaterJones: I imagine your dramaturgical research for Summer and Smoke was very interesting. Did it reveal anything new to you about the working relationship between Tennessee Williams and Margo Jones? Did you come across anything new or strange about the history of Dallas theater?

Emily Scott Banks: It was indeed riveting. I began my research in early January and read everything I could get my hands on regarding Jones, Williams, Summer and Smoke, and the Fair Park space. Invaluable was Helen Sheehy’s biography, Margo: The Life and Theatre of Margo Jones. The very abbreviated gist of what I found is that in 1943, when Margo directed Williams’ play You Touched Me, they became best friends, of a sort.  They remained friendly until the Broadway trials of Summer and Smoke strained their relationship. But they did remain in contact up until Jones’ death in 1955. News of her tragic death at such an early age apparently sent Williams on a two-week bender.

So very many things struck me about those years when Margo operated her theater in Dallas that I hardly know where to begin. It was particularly interesting that Dallas had close ties with Broadway during those years. Dallas felt it needed validation from Broadway, and yet it was often noticed how lacking in innovation Broadway was in comparison to what Margo was doing in Dallas. Another detail from the research is the way audiences would show up dressed in their finest, and how the tiny space somehow seated 198 people! (There must have been looser fire codes back then.) Another eye-opening tidbit is that the actors Margo hired from New York made between $75 and $100 per week, which comes to about $860 to $1150 per week in 2019 terms. That’s far more than most actors make locally, even with their much longer hours per day.

 

I'm a longtime Dallas resident, and Tennessee Williams is my favorite writer. Strangely, I can't at all imagine Williams out and about in Dallas—not during any period of his life. Perhaps my lack of context has to do with the many identity shifts the city has had over the years — and keeps having. Maybe the cultural influence of late-1940s Dallas, when the play was written—an influence that not only shaped Summer and Smoke, one of America's greatest plays, but also shaped Williams into the greatest American playwright—fell away to other Dallas identities long ago. Or perhaps Dallas had little to do with it. Perhaps the influence wasn't the city at all, but rather the influence of someone who just happened to live here, Margo Jones. I’m sure I’m not the only one lacking context, but perhaps this revival will provide some. Do you see your production at Margo Jones Theatre as a sort of bridge back to Dallas for Williams and for Summer and Smoke?

Williams was initially quite concerned about Dallas, and how it might react to his “lifestyle,” as he put it. He didn’t even come to town for the opening night of Sumer and Smoke. When he did finally make it for one of the final performances, he was bowled over by the audience’s reception. He was impressed by the energy of the city and commented, in particular, on the style and dynamism of Dallas ladies (in relation to their much more staid husbands). Dallas society definitely took him under its wing, and there are some great photos of a young, open-shirted Tennessee lounging by a board member’s pool.

Regarding Williams’ plays being produced in Dallas since then, I haven’t noticed a lack of performances, historically. It seems that once about every five years or so one of the established theaters produces one of them. But I am utterly and completely experiencing a sense of wonder over the fact that this is the first time Summer and Smoke has been done at the Margo Jones since 1947. The space was just as tiny and challenging then as it is today, and yet theater history was made there.

 

Photo: Mark Lowry
The title page from the world premiere of Summer and Smoke at Theatre '47

Williams revised Summer and Smoke into The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. An interesting thing has happened: Summer and Smoke was never eclipsed by the newer play, and both plays are performed often. Certainly, the success of both plays arrives out of the complexity of Alma Winemiller. She's an extraordinary literary achievement, in that she seems at once to be a real person reckoning with fragility and difference and something ethereal, like a beautifully sad piece of music. Did The Classics Theater Project compare the two plays during pre-production? If so, did the comparison gain you any further insights into Alma?

It seems there are actually five incarnations, and possibly more, of this play. It was originally The Chart of Anatomy, then the version that Margo premiered in Dallas in ‘47. That version didn’t include the Rosa or Papa Gonzales characters, which were added for the Broadway premiere in ’48 (in the 1961 film version, Rita Moreno played Rosa; and Lawrence Harvey and Geraldine Page were John and Alma). Then there is a version Williams wrote that removed the prologue and re-ordered certain scenes. Extant in publication today are the so-called “reading version,” with the prologue and a different scene order, and an “acting edition” without the prologue that is somewhat shorter. Adding to the alterations is the play’s continuation as Eccentricities.

Tennessee Williams is quoted at different times as saying he is Alma. I think this might be a key reason as to why he kept revisiting her and the play, adjusting the lens as he grew older and went through therapy. So, to answer your question as to comparing versions—yes, in my last 5 months of prep, I read all the complete versions I could get my hands on, and the parts of others that are still available. Ultimately, I chose to go with a combination that includes elements of several of them. Much like John Tiffany’s revelatory Glass Menagerie on Broadway five years ago, or Rebecca Frecknall’s Summer and Smoke at the Almeida last year, I was most interested in getting to the heart or soul of Williams’ original intent, and to not simply reproduce the same paint-by-numbers approach, again. Which very much leads me to your next question...

 

Williams' notes for Summer and Smoke are precise, but also collaborative. He describes a setting in which his symbols remain on stage for the audience to see throughout the play. These symbols include the sky, the stone angel, and fragmentary walls. These images are important to Williams. In one sense, his characters inhabit a particular time and place. In another sense, they are figures in all time and all space, like the figures in myths. Please give us some insight into the company's process for realizing Williams' vision of (the fictional) Glorious Hill, Mississippi?

Little realized, I’ve come to find out, is that Margo herself did not (and could never have in the tiny arena space at Fair Park) in any way attempt to manifest Tennessee’s rather floridly explicit details for how he envisioned the set. This is one of my favorite elements my research has revealed. This very detail is a chief reason why the play was considered such a success in Dallas in 1947 and, by many of the same critics, such a failure on Broadway one year later. It was said that the Broadway production was problematic because the grand set design overpowered the delicate moods of the play.

It seemed essential to me to consider two key things. First, what was the author’s intention with the scenery that he took such pains to describe (i.e. what was he hoping to inspire in viewers)? Second, I took into account that what an audience considered experimental about the production in 1947 would not be considered new or startling today. I wondered how Margo would approach the production if she were to stage it in the space now.

I wanted to keep the focus on the actors and story, rather than on the set. I had this desire to go back to an in-the-round staging of the play, rather than the deep thrust that is normally in situ at the space. For this configuration, I found that I had to move the sky up, rather than have it featured in the background on a cyclorama, which is how Williams described it. Finally, I meditated a long time on the essence of the play. The poetic title invites symbolic thinking about objects within the play, such as the anatomy chart and the angel Eternity. These are representatives of the flesh and the spirit. They can be distilled as earth and air, which is something conceptualized in our set.

Photo: Evan Michael Woods
Evan Michael Woods and Gretchen Hahn in Summer and Smoke from the Classics Theatre Project

In the “Author’s Notes on Setting,” Williams says: “It need hardly be pointed out that the practical details mentioned throughout should be shown as unobtrusively as possible, a good deal of leeway being allowed to the director in suggesting these realistic matters rather than actually reproducing them.” I accepted the leeway, while also trying to honor the tension in the symbolic relationships mentioned above. Designer Natalie McBride and I collaborated on how to fluidly connect the three main locales, but hopefully not in such a way that overpowers Williams’ idea for “real characters against a surreal landscape.” Forgive me, but I could go on for pages more about my research on this!

 

I spoke a moment ago about how Summer and Smoke isn't the luminous detail in Dallas history that perhaps it ought to be. But of course, there are far better reasons to attend a play than to receive a history lesson. The play is memorable and full of delights. What are some details about this production you look forward to sharing with audiences?

My hope with our production is that we avoid any whiff of what I call “good for you” or “obligation” theater—theater that is set in amber, overly quaint or irrelevant to us today.  Rather, my deepest desire is to get at the soul of this beautiful and complex story in a way that hopefully provokes immediacy and recognition in our audience. That combination is at the core of why I think certain works become classics. They continually reveal themselves anew and prove themselves necessary to subsequent generations. Thanks For Reading





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Margo and Tennessee, Reunited
As the Classics Theatre Project revives Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke in the space where it premiered 72 years ago, director Emily Scott Banks discusses its significance.
by Richard Bailey

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