In Summer and Smoke, Tennessee Williams explores the interior conflict between the physical and spiritual parts of human nature. As he does later on in A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams pits a “brute” of a man against a woman who, though fragile and easily broken and clearly the “spiritual” side of this coin, finds herself fighting against her own nature. The new company Violet Sky Theatre (yes, new companies are still forming even in the wake of the pandemic, to which I holler “Hurray!”), taking over Invictus Theatre’s space at the former Frontier on Thorndale for the month of July, gives itself a solid inauguration with a production full of strong performances and great respect for Williams’ sometimes purple dialogue.
Kevin Rolfs’ set features an open and flexible blank space (as large as possible in this tiny, intimate theatre) that allows several more formed spaces to open up. There is a doctor’s office, highlighted by an anatomy chart called for by the playwright; a minister’s home; an exterior space featuring a statue of an angel, the main icon of the small, fictitious town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi; and the tiniest suggestions of windows through which neighbors might see each other. Somehow, though that seems quite a lot for a compact stage in a 40-seat house, it never seems crowded, which is also due to the fine direction of Eden Blattner, who moves her performers in and out with dexterity.
The play (which both begins on Independence Day and actually opened on July 3, a fun juxtaposition) revolves around Lindsey Zanatta’s character, the proto-Blanche Alma Winemiller. Alma is the local minister’s very nervous only daughter and a voice teacher who spends a lot of her time helping her father (Chuck Munro) corral his wife (Debra Rodkin), who for reasons she has never shared simply gave up all pretense of adult responsibility one day and now lives like an obnoxious overgrown child in her husband’s house. (Fortunately, she can be bribed with ice cream). This unusual character, which Rodkin has great fun playing, serves as a near-constant annoyance to the minister as well as Alma, in addition to being a device to blurt out anything that might be better kept secret. (The play has all sorts of secrets, and one can imagine it taking far longer than its 2:15 running time—with one intermission—if everyone could actually keep them.)
Alma (who tells us several times that her name is Spanish for “soul,” as if we couldn’t figure out that she is the one representing the spiritual here) has long had a crush on the boy next door, the doctor’s hunky son, who has now become a doctor himself. John Buchanan, Jr. (Joshua J. Volkers), unfortunately for Alma, is also a drunk, a gambler, and a womanizer. (Yep, he’s the “physical” part.) Alma knows all of this but can’t help her feelings. Early on, she tells John he should settle his intemperate ways in order to find love, but he responds by asking where on his anatomy chart the “soul” can be found…which of course she cannot tell him.
Both Zanatta and Volkers are strong in these roles, and despite the seemingly unbridgeable gap between their characters, they manage to make a relationship seem not at all unreasonable. You know that John would seduce her if the opportunity presented itself, and it’s easy to see that Alma is probably too weak of mind (not to mention too infatuated) to fight him even if she knows it would be wrong. That she discovers she is able to turn him down after all alters the dynamic between them eventually, in a twist worthy of O. Henry.
Eight other characters flesh out this small town, four of them joining Alma for a reading group. This younger, more gossipy version of Streetcar’s poker buddies serves a similar purpose by allowing us to see Alma in a different context than when she is with John or her parents. (Hanna Beth Mitchell’s Mrs. Bassett, a bit of a busybody, stands out here along with Jill Shoemaker’s Nellie Ewell, Alma’s precocious young [and tone-deaf] student, who has a massive crush on John.)
This is not the kind of play that has a happy ending, but then you already know that if you’ve ever read or seen anything at all by Williams. It is a story of opposites who somehow change each other, for better or worse, and a story about losing the part of you that makes you, well, you. If you are decadent John, that might be a good thing, but if you are named Alma, Spanish for soul, that kind of loss may well be devastating.
Summer and Smoke plays now through July 31.