It’s completely possible that Lee Sankowich has been possessed by the ghost of Tennessee Williams. It would explain why this is the second consecutive season where we’re getting a lesser-known Williams work from him; it’s also likely, considering Sankowich’s knack for the playwright’s nuances. Handguns, humidity, and high-strung women; Summer and Smoke revisits many of Williams’ most beloved situations and themes in a densely authentic production at Walnut Creek’s Center Rep.
More streamlined than last year’s The Fugitive Kind, which groaned under a boxcar worth of salty characters, Summer and Smoke is the story of Alma and Johnny, neighbors since childhood. But theirs is not the bland, easy love that setup would suggest; emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, they’re never in the same place at the same time. As the play opens one hot Fourth of July, Alma is having one of her frequent anxiety attacks: “I don’t get over shocks quickly,” she gasps after being startled by a firecracker. Johnny, now a doctor, is lurking around enjoying the attack. “You have an irritated doppelgänger,” he teases her. Alma has grown up proper and a bit affected; Johnny has turned to what Mississippians of 1900 would consider the dark side; wild women, gambling, and drink. The two inhabit a hothouse of stifled desire, nicely suggested by Kelly Tighe’s gorgeous set, where the walls of the two houses have been cut jaggedly away to reveal the interiors.
Even if you haven’t seen this particular Williams, it’s very familiar. Alma is soul sister to Streetcar Named Desire‘s Blanche DuBois, putting on airs and trying to live daintily. Johnny, meanwhile, is pressed from the same mold of so many Williams heroes; he’s dissipated and a little crude, but irresistible for all that. And this story goes the way so many Williams stories do: there’s a hot tamale of another woman and her overprotective pistol-packing papa. Alma spends most of the play despairing of whether she will ever survive the cruel life she’s been dealt. Johnny will be forced to confront his wicked ways.
What’s different is that this one, while overlong, has something like a happy ending — at least if you believe that Alma and John essentially switching roles is a good outcome. (This point is made rather heavily in their last scene together; Williams wasn’t taking the chance that the audience wouldn’t get it.) Nobody goes insane, nobody’s lover gets fatally shot, and unlike some of the better-known works — Suddenly Last Summer or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — nobody is in agony because he has to conceal his homosexuality. Julia McNeal easily manipulates Alma’s transformation from prissy and fluttering to bold and calm with a subtle deepening of both her bearing and vocal quality. Darren Bridgett’s John is not as vivid as Alma, and it’s hard to follow his mercurial shifts, but then Williams didn’t generally give his men as much to do as the women.
That is evident in Summer and Smoke‘s wittiness, most of which lies in the female roles. Williams saddled his heroine with a loony mother who must be blackmailed into behaving with ice cream, outrageously played here by Kerri Shawn, and local gossip Mrs. Bassett, a happily crotchety Pat Parker. Of the men, only John’s father Dr. Buchanan gets to do things like refer to another character as a no-good whelp; the other men — Alma’s minister father and her nerdy suitor, the owner of a riverfront casino, a put-upon club member — are not as clearly drawn.