Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams
Almeida Theatre; Duke of York’s Theatre / directed by Rebecca Frecknall
Seen on January 8, 2018
Score: 5 / 5
In this exquisitely atmospheric production of Tennessee Williams’s 1948 play, vivacious but thoughtful simplicity reigns supreme. Rebecca Frecknall’s poetic staging hits all the right notes by laying bare before us the restless heart of every single scene. The play’s lyricism is made beautifully tangible by Tom Scutt’s piano-lined set and Lee Curran’s tenderly virtuosic lighting. There is nothing superfluous in any aspect of the production, and whatever scant detail might appear on stage is sure to have lasting resonance within the world of the play.
In Summer and Smoke, we track the Bildung of two central characters over the course of several years: Alma, a sensitive and nervous young woman dextrously bearing the cross of her dysfunctional family, and John, a somewhat reckless but slowly maturing doctor-in-training. As they find themselves romantically drawn to each other time and again, their encounters become lyrically animated debates about the meaning and import of love—debates between soul and body, religion and science, communion and desire. At the end, when “the tables have turned with a vengeance,” each has come a long way from their youthful convictions, and it is especially Alma’s ultimate discovery, and use, of her own voice that tells us most about her growth and resilience. Williams’s play treads a fine line between his trademark poetic realism and a Shavian interest in argumentation, and in the hands of a mediocre team, much of this might have fallen miserably flat. But that is never the case in this visually stripped-down but tonally amped-up production.
The cast is simply phenomenal: In a career-defining performance, Patsy Ferran creates a spellbindingly real and nuanced Alma. Her masterful depiction allows Alma to stop being a mere character and enter our minds and hearts with the force of a living, breathing human being. Matthew Needham is similarly commanding in his performance as John, and even though he doesn’t steal the show from Ferran, his work is consistently top-notch. Anjana Vasan does wonders with each of her four characters (a formidable task!); Forbes Masson tackles both of the father figures with emphatic grace; and Nancy Crane recalibrates the moods of her scenes to great effect. The blocking is slyly efficient and organic throughout, and even the more stylised transitions are not ill-fitting in this work of arresting humility. From first to last, every moment of this elegantly orchestrated work is aglow with all-too-human passions, anxieties, and hesitations—and the result is no other than a remarkable achievement in storytelling that is at once clear and ambiguous, realistic and dreamlike.
“The pieces don’t fit!” is a complaint twice exclaimed in the play, with reference to a jigsaw puzzle. Rest assured that the pieces of Frecknall’s production fit together in the most dazzling way.