Saturday, 13 October 2018

Summer & Smoke - Theatre Review

What: Summer & Smoke
When: 3 - 14 October 2018
Where: Good Shepherd Chapel
Written by: Tennessee Williams
Directed by: Tanya Burne
Performed by: Alice Bishop, Helen Doig, Leah Filley, Joseph Green, Cecilia Low, Ryan Murphy, Cariad Wallace, and John Wood
Costumes by: Emily Harvey and Amanda Hitten
Lighting by: Natalia Velasco
Music and sound by: Julian Lyngcolm and Peter McKeown
Stage Managed by: Joey Burford
John Wood, Helen Doig, and Leah Filley
Summer & Smoke is a play written by Williams at the beginning of his golden era of play writing. It has never been a play produced in Australia, but White Horse Collective have changed that and have put on a season at the Good Shepherd Chapel in Abbottsford.

Produced on stage in 1948 (just after A Streetcar Named Desire), Summer & Smoke was made into a film in 1961. All of Williams' plays are considered to be autobiographical and Summer & Smoke clearly delves into his family situation.

Williams' mother was considered to be pretentious and was the the daughter of a minister (Wood), as is the protagonist Alma (Filley), and his grandmother was a music teacher as is Alma as well. Williams' sister was diagnosed schizophrenic and had a lobotomy, and the mother figure (Doig) in Summer & Smoke is suffering some form of serious mental illness which restricts Alma's life as she has to take on carer duties. Williams himself took on responsibilities for his sister and suffered from depression - again, reflected in the character of Alma. Williams' mother married a young shoe salesman and Alma ends the play going off into the night with...a young shoe salesman. You get the picture...

The story revolves around the transformation of Alma and John (Green) from one state to another. For Alma it is the journey from devout good girl mired in duty and faith and for John it is travelling from a hedonistic corporealist to a man of responsibility and conformity.

Summer & Smoke was not one of Williams' more successful works, and I think it is because the transformative journey for Alma is not quite credible. There is not quite enough in the writing to get the audience to change their view of her from saint to sinner. John's journey is much more clearly accounted for.

Much of this can be blamed on the writing, but in the White Horse Collective production there is a portion of blame to lay on the direction (Burne) and the acting. Williams spends a lot of dialogue capital talking about Alma's affectations including the use of the 'long A'. John mocks her about it, telling her he saw someone mimicking her, Nellie (Wallace) talks about taking up her affectations, and Alma even admits to a small portion.

Nothing of that comes through in Filleys performance. Yes, she does use the long A occassionally, but it is swaddled in a sea of realism and authenticity in the southern accent so at best she seems like the slightly nervous type and that is about it. The greater the affectation, the more scope there would have been for Filley to play with the breaking down of her sense of self and values and the greater the dynamics and tension possible between the cast members.

As well, John identifies Alma has a doppelganger and this is key to her descent. He is talking about a sensuous side which has been locked up under the watchful stare of the fountain angel Eternity. This is a bit harder for us to grasp because White Horse have decided not to include the prologue. I don't think they understood how important it was to help us understand both John and Alma and why they are like they are - how they could grow up and yet have such opposing beliefs.

Burne does not allow Filley the space to explore the battle within Alma. John teases and prods and pokes to release the doppelganger to join him in his own moral descent. The tension of the work really lies in Alma's failure to overcome. Rosa (Low) is the image constantly thrown in her face as the kind of woman John wants and until she allows her corporeal needs to overcome her spiritual constraints she cannot have him. Without this tension, her downfall is hollow.

The character of the mother is also woefully under used. One of the great tensions working on Alma from childhood is the caring of her mother who has debilitating and destructive mental health problems. Burne just keeps her sitting behind the action raising some verbal interference. We rarely see them fully interacting and we never get to fully appreciate the fear or love Alma must have for her. We never see the destruction she has on the lives of both the reclusive father and the overwhelmed daughter who has to put on a facade of superiority to hide her misery and despair.

The company in general do act out the play well and Burne has directed the story well, it just feels as though the intention was missed and, to be honest, I don't know how much more a playwright can do to tell people what the story is.

I love the accents. I rarely say that, but this is because they are rarely done well or consistently. This ensemble of actors have worked hard though and none of them miss a beat. This is essential for producing Williams' plays because he is a poetic writer and the rhythm of his work relies on the melody of the southern drawl.

The decision to present Summer & Smoke in the Good Shepherd Chapel is a stroke of genius. I just wish (again) they had included the prologue somehow because the fresco work could then be a much more powerful and active agent in the story and add to the overwhelming pressures working on Alma.

The sound and music was absolute perfection. Lyngcoln and McKeown play live and in particular they make the decadent scenes sing with power and potential. All of the production elements worked to do their bit although the lighting could have drawn on the iconography within the chapel more perhaps.

I did enjoy this production of Summer & Smoke. It is the fact it was so good which has made me frustrated because I can so clearly see the potential of the powerhouse it could have been. I don't know if it is a play which will get much more stage time in Australia because it speaks very little to the Australian life or current modes of society but I am glad I have seen it staged. Tonight is the last performance and I would recommend seeing it if you can.

3.5 Stars

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