Dallas — Before it was the Mobil Oil Company, it was the Magnolia Oil and Gas Company. In 1936, that company built the Magnolia Lounge in Fair Park. Inside the lounge is the theatre space in which Margo Jones launched her theatre company, Theatre ’47. She was 34 years old. On July 8, 1947 she presented the world premiere of Summer and Smoke by the 36-year-old playwright with whom she would enjoy a long, loving friendship—Tennessee Williams. The theatre space was eventually named the Margo Jones Theatre in honor of Dallas’ most devoted and respected thespian lovingly known to the theatre world as “The Texas Tornado.”
The Classics Theatre Project (TCTP) brings Summer and Smoke back to the Margo Jones Theatre a month before the anniversary of the play’s world premiere in Dallas. TCTP is a repertory company of artists, the Canterbury Company of Resident Artists. Director Emily Scott-Banks has blended casting with company and non-company members (read our interview with her here). She has cast this production well.
Williams’ original story is written in what Margo Jones described stylistically as selective realism. It is set in Glorious, Mississippi, a small southern town with its requisite attitudes and practices. Originally, the time period was around the beginning of the 20th century but some of the costuming for this production suggests this version is more modernized.
In recreating the arena configuration, Natalie McBride (production designer), like Margo Jones, created a two-level set, accomplished by elevating the scenes in the corners which makes them visible to all sides of the audience. Instead of having the fountain center stage, the park bench is center. The mise-en-scène is efficient, open and graceful. There is nothing to interfere with or draw focus from the actors.
Our protagonist, Alma Winemiller (Gretchen Hahn), is a minister’s daughter who still lives with her mother and Mrs. Winemiller (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt) and Rev. Winemiller (Stan Graner). Alma, whose name means “soul” in Spanish, is in love with their next-door neighbor’s son, John Buchanan, Jr. (Evan Michael Woods). He has recently completed medical school and is expected to join his father and help with Dr. John Senior’s (Van Quattro) practice.
From William’s perspective, there is a hypocrisy embedded in southern people which they mask with charm. Alma, Johnny, Rev. and Mrs. Winemiller want something out of life but have no idea how to get it. Of the four, Johnny is the only one who figures it out.
Alma’s world is small, her experiences very limited. One of her more precocious vocal students, Nellie (Rachel Reininger), has a knack for saying the wrong thing at the right time. Much of Alma’s time is spent managing her peculiar mother, and assuming domestic responsibilities for her misogynistic father. Before Johnny returned from college, her only outlet was a reading club: Roger, a suitor to whom she is not attracted (Chad Cline), Mrs. Bassett (Leslie Patrick), and aspiring playwright, Vernon (Dean Wray).
In his memoir, Williams said “Miss Alma Winemiller may very well be the best female portrait I have drawn in a play.” He saw the character as elegantly tortured and damned. Hahn keeps Alma conflicted but not pitiable.
Now that Johnny is home, Alma is hopeful for a relationship with him but she firmly believes in the soul as the conduit for love. Johnny dismisses the idea of a soul and tries to explain to Alma that romance cannot be separated from the body, the physical. He has a penchant for the seamier side of life, spending much of his time at the casino owned by Papa Gonzales (Jackie L. Kemp), becoming entangled with Papa’s daughter, Rosa (Hannah Martinez).
Hahn and Woods distinguish delicacy from fragility, which is important because while there is a delicacy about Alma, she is not fragile. Hahn plays Alma with respect and thoughtfulness, not pity or sympathy. She brings the anxious naiveté without caricaturing the character. Woods’ voice and bearing remain steady, sensually reliable. His quiet, earnest engagement with Alma is beautiful in the final scene in his father’s office. Hahn and Woods avoid the risk of overplaying the irony in that scene.
Pyeatt makes Mrs. Winemiller more fully dimensional. Her husband refers to her as “their cross to bear” because she has struggled with mental illness. Pyeatt plays her in a way that brings the childlike elements mixed with uncertainty as to whether Mrs. Winemiller is actually just committed to making her husband miserable even at the expense of her daughter. Graner hammers the stomach-turning minister as he dares Alma to leave on a date.
Summer and Smoke had a difficult time finding audience once it moved to Broadway. There was only one major critic who loved the play and gave it good reviews. Williams recycled material and elements this play were partially absorbed by another, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. But he could never let go of Alma because “she had the greatest struggle.”
The play has since gained in reputation, acclaim, popularity and audience appreciation and is considered one of his best works. TCTP has mounted a lovely production which is true to the playwright’s intention. Seeing it in the space where it first came to life adds to the experience.