A huge stone angel, cast in red and blue light, overlooks the town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, in Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, now up at Play On! Theatre, in the Ix Building, through March 27. The force of the performance largely rests on its two leading actors, Emma Duncan and Geoffrey Culbertson.
Geoffrey Culbertson and Emma Duncan deftly conjure the Gulf wind—and a more oppressive time—in a new production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke.
Throughout the play the angel overlooks Dr. John Buchanan, Jr., (the movie-striking Culbertson) a dashing young physician who returns from Johns Hopkins with a medical degree and a badboy attitude to live with his father, also a doctor. Among his father’s patients is the handsome, if uptight, young woman next door, Miss Alma (Duncan, also a classic beauty), who regularly visits in the middle of the night with insomnia. At one of their early meetings, the young Dr. Buchanan diagnoses Alma with having a doppelganger—a joke that turns out to be more or less true, as she attempts to reconcile her upbringing as a minister’s daughter with her desire to bed the freewheeling physician.
Since the young doctor is a skillful sociopath, the audience naturally takes it for truth when Culbertson’s Buchanan kicks a drinking habit and returns home to take on an honest practice (and a much younger woman, played with vim and vigor by Claire Chandler). Meanwhile, Duncan marks the almost invisible shift towards Alma’s despair with subtlety that suits the prim character. It’s a great performance; Duncan and Culbertson show well how their characters get stuck, despite their best efforts, on opposite sides of a revolving door.
“I’ve come around on your way of thinking, and you to mine,” Alma laments by the end, having “choked on the smoke of something on fire inside of her.” As with our heroes, this production keeps its emotional distance from the audience. Talk about love and God can get dreary, even in Williams’ more famous works. The generous heaps of comic relief he supplies in this script mostly fall flat in the hands of an ensemble cast—likely because Play On! can be a big, unforgiving room. Two notable exceptions are Mr. Winemiller (Thomas Burke) and the elder Dr. Buchanan (David Key), the play’s bumbling dads. But they struggle to summon the patriarchal anger that defined life in Mississippi, 1916, for characters like Alma.
On stage, not all of the furniture looks like it’s from the same time and place, which speaks to the theater’s limited resources—and that’s fine. But it also speaks to how this production might hit its audience harder in a more intimate setting. What actor could hope to aspire to the drama of an enormous stone angel, casting layers of dramatic shade on the wall?
Fortunately, this production of Summer and Smoke is dominated by the superbly watchable lead actors Duncan and Culbertson, whose characters only want to be human.