Summer and Smoke Review: Soul-Searching

Telling the story of the awakening of a young woman’s sexuality, “Summer and Smoke” by Tennessee Williams, directed by Terry Schreiber, invites us to look past appearances and hear beyond words. When the characters talk to each other, so much remains unsaid, concealed under the layers of meaningless chitchat, but we can decipher those hidden meanings if we closely follow the actors’ facial expressions and gestures. Every tear and every sigh tell a story that lips do not dare to bring up.

Meeting the protagonist, Miss Alma Winemiller (Taylor Graves), for the first time, we take her for a narrow-minded chatterbox of a nervous type. There seems to be little substance underneath her pretty face. Even her childhood friend, Johnny Buchanan (Jacques Mitchell) realizes only later that she is a “flame mistaken for ice.” Deprived of her childhood by her mother’s mental illness, Alma, a reverend’s daughter, was raised like a lady, who should not associate with such a fallen creature like young Mr. Buchanan. She hosts weekly intellectual gatherings while he attends orgies and gambles in a local casino. Their worlds barely intercept, and yet, they are constantly drawn to each other.

In addition to the love story suspense (will Alma and John ever be together?), what keeps the audience engaged is how the playwright tackles women’s sexuality. Until Alma admits to Dr. Buchanan Sr. that she feels no passion for her suitor, Roger (Ivan Sandomire), we may even believe, like Johnny, that she is cold and frigid. However, as we get to know her, we understand that she has learned to control her desires, constrained by social norms and strict upbringing.

As Alma balances her physical needs with morality, the playwright raises the question of soul. Where is it contained in the human body? As a doctor, Mr. Buchanan Jr. argues that it does not exist, for no anatomical maps show it. Alma disagrees with him.

It is, of course, no coincidence that her name, Alma, is Spanish for “soul.” No one other but Johnny brings it up in the conversation, so those audience members who did not know it would not miss it.

By the way, Spanish words appear in the play quite often. Some of them are pretty familiar to an average English speaker (“sometimes un poquito is plenty”), while others pop up in conversations between the two Mexican characters, Rosa Gonzales (Aida Alvarez) and her father (Stephan Antonio Ortiz). Even though some translation of those could be helpful, its lack does not take anything away from the play. Pain and anger are universal, and the actors do a marvelous job portraying them on their faces. Moreover, by using foreign words Williams once again invites us to hear beyond what’s said, to see a soul inside a body.

Thus, when the performance comes to its end, it leaves us with the feeling that we have made a new friend, who has just undergone a major transformation before our eyes. For this reason, it is not only Alma’s journey, in the course of which she finds out who she really is. It becomes our journey, too, inciting our curiosity to scratch the surface and see what hides behind both the unfamiliar and well-known faces we see in our everyday lives. And even if we do not believe in the soul like Alma does, we will at least remind ourselves that a person is a whole world, traveling through which may be both exciting and perilous.

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