The Theatreguide.London Review
Summer and Smoke
Apollo Theatre Autumn-Winter 2006
Summer and Smoke is about loneliness and courage, about how very difficult it is for humans to escape their own isolation and reach out even to those nearest to them, about the uneasy coexistence within us of ideals and emotions, about a delicate Southern woman with more passion within her than she realises and a debauched Southern man with more yearning for purity than he realises.
It contains the line 'I am mystified and amazed, as I always am, at unprovoked malice in people'.
It is, of course, by Tennessee Williams.
I had never until now considered it top-grade Williams, thinking it too fragile and too dependent on Williams' typically overt symbolism. But I was wrong.
It is as beautiful and moving and poetic and involving and emotionally courageous as The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire.
And I thank director Adrian Noble and his fine cast for showing me that.
Williams' heroine, Alma Winemiller, is a Mississippi minister's daughter who, in 1916, is in love with the young doctor next door but convinced that true love is a bond of souls in which the bodies play little part.
John Buchanan, the doctor, is a materialist who can't find the soul on his anatomy charts, and feels that denying the body is denying life.
Her feelings threaten to lure her into neurasthenia, his drag him toward debauchery. And yet something makes them reach for each other, almost but not quite make contact, and then move apart again, each ironically having affected the other so that by play's end their positions have reversed and they are as far apart as ever.
Only Tennessee Williams would attempt that play, and only Williams at the peak of his powers could pull it off, avoiding all the pitfalls of excess, cliché or soap opera. And Adrian Noble's production captures it all.
Rosamund Pike's Alma is real, touching and vulnerable, but also far stronger than the character realises or other actresses in the role usually show.
She is never comical, never pathetic, but rather a woman of a clear mind and great emotional courage, able to take the risk of opening up to another, to handle the pain of failure, to learn and grow from the experience, and to face the fact of her own growth and its implications.
She shows us an Alma who can stand alongside Blanche Dubois and Maggie the Cat and Hannah Jelkes in Williams' pantheon of great female characters.
As John, Chris Carmack begins a bit too boyish, in a down-home bubba sort of way, but he quickly finds the character's depth and complexity, showing us the hunger for ideals that drives his self-destruction and the painful awareness of what he has lost by swinging too far and too quickly in the other direction.
In a large supporting cast Angela Down as Alma's mother, labelled crazy because she speaks her mind uninhibitedly, threatens to steal all her scenes but also reminds us this is in part a play about the difficulty of being a woman in the nearly-Victorian South.
But keep your eyes on the two central characters, listen to the unmatchable theatrical poetry, revel in the delicacy but absolute control of Adrian Noble's direction, and be reminded of what a uniquely great playwright Tennessee Williams is.
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