Something is brewing in Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke”. It’s just a matter of whether the fire burns or reignites.
Former neighbors Alma Winemiller and John Buchanan reunited in their small town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi. Alma is the town minister’s daughter and, as a teenager, adored John. He became a doctor, and although he moved to take over his father’s practice, his interest in the body is also about pleasure, including drinking and chasing after women.
“Summer and Smoke” is the centerpiece of New Orleans’ Tennessee Williams Theater Company’s season of Southern Gothic-themed works. It opens at the Opéra de Marigny on August 5.
The company began its season with parodies of works by Tennessee Williams, including Christopher Durang’s “Desire, Desire, Desire” and “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls”. “Summer and Smoke” is more like a mainstay of the Southern Gothic genre.
“We make the Tennessee Williams gold standard with the (Mississippi) delta, all the foreshadowing, poetry and desire,” says company co-founder Augustin J. Correro, who leads the work.
Sexual desire driving a character to conflict or misery is a signature of Williams. He also often installed works in small towns across Mississippi, making the most of social pressures and religious mores. This is the gist of “Summer and Smoke”, as Alma still loves church, and John prefers to drink and find companions to go to the Moon Lake Casino.
“It’s the preacher’s daughter and the hedonistic trope,” Correro says. “In the 1940s, when (‘Summer and Smoke’) came out, it wasn’t too much. It was just in time. It framed those Southern characters, which Williams did in a way no one else was doing at the time.
With her mentally ill mother, Alma had to both care for her and replace her in the church community when she was still a teenager. It was like she was the preacher’s daughter and wife, Correro said. Embracing the role made her look like a bachelor as a young woman.
John faced similar pressure to step into his father’s shoes as the town doctor. But being away from home to study medicine allowed him much more personal freedom.
The set includes the parsonage of the church, John’s medical office and an angel statue located in the center of the town. Alma and John were once kindred spirits and could be again, but they handled their assigned roles differently.
“Summer and Smoke” was written around the same time as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and Alma is sometimes compared to Blanche DuBois, who fled rural Mississippi when she came to visit Stanley and Stella Kowalski in New Orleans. Both struggle with the lust and social pressures of a small town. But Correro says Alma has more in common with Amanda Wingfield of “The Glass Menagerie,” which debuted in 1944. At the start of “Summer and Smoke,” Alma is more like the frustrated Amanda, who talks about all the suitors whom she attracted as a younger woman.
“Summer and Smoke” debuted on Broadway in 1948 and did not do well. But a Broadway revival was a big hit and led to a film version. Williams also returned to the story a decade later and rewrote it as “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale”. Correro says the company plans to produce that show at a later date.
“Williams wouldn’t have kept coming back to it if there wasn’t something special and electrifying about these characters that he was trying to say,” Correro says.
“Summer and Smoke” takes place from August 5 to 21 at the Opéra de Marigny. Find tickets and information at twtheatrenola.com.
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