At Washington's Arena Stage, director Kyle Donnelly has returned Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke" to its original in-the-round staging, and the result shows off the play to such sparkling advantage it's difficult to understand why this evocative.
Like much of Williams' work, "Summer and Smoke" focuses on the contrast between the spiritual and the sensual. Designer Marina Draghici has placed the playwright's images of these in two corners of the set; a fountain in the shape of an angel represents the former, and a physician's anatomy chart, the latter. Most especially, however, it is the spacious arena setting that converts this small-town Southern story about a star-crossed romance into a broad-reaching look at a basic human struggle.
The thwarted romance involves Miss Alma Winemiller and Dr. John Buchanan Jr. A minister's daughter and a doctor's son, respectively, they embody the opposing forces of soul ("Alma" is Spanish for "soul") vs. body. However, Williams breathed life into his symbols, and as portrayed by Pamela Nyberg and Casey Biggs, Alma and Johnny are fully realized human beings, complete with conflicts, angst and heartbreak.
In his "Memoirs," Williams wrote, "Miss Alma Winemiller may very well be the best female portrait I have drawn in a play." And Nyberg, as erect and perfectly coiffed as a china doll, combines Alma's nervous fragility with an unexpected inner strength and eventual self-awareness.
Admittedly, Alma's acceptance of her sensuality in the final scene seems more joyous than might be expected, but for the most part, the production's 1990s nod to feminism turns a repressed spinster into a far more credible, sympathetic heroine.
As Johnny, Biggs makes a thoroughly believable wastrel while managing to suggest glimmers of the finer qualities Alma sees in him. The effectiveness of their portrayals reaches its apex in the 11th-hour scene when Alma declares her love for Johnny. As different as these two appear on the outside, they share an emotional bond, and Nyberg and Biggs convey this so convincingly that we hope against hope love will triumph. But, of course, this is a Williams' play, not a Southern valentine.
The supporting characters are also carefully depicted. Tana Hicken fleshes out the thinly drawn figure of Alma's mentally ill mother, adding a hint of childlike Laura from Williams' "The Glass Menagerie"; Terrence Currier makes Johnny's revered physician
father appear wise but not sanctimonious; and as Nellie, Alma's young friend with a crush on Johnny, Jackie Mari Roberts is as fresh and exuberant as youth itself.
It doesn't seem to be coincidence that many of the most successful productions of "Summer and Smoke" have been staged in the round; besides the 1947 debut in Dallas, there was a famous 1952 off-Broadway revival at Circle in the Square, and Arena Stage did its own version in 1954. Of course, as is true of the main characters, externals aren't everything, but certainly in the case of this latest revival, the openness of the arena staging fits Williams' poetic play as neatly as its sonorous title.
"Summer and Smoke" Where: Arena Stage, Sixth Street and Maine Avenue S.W., Washington.
When: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; selected matinees Wednesdays at noon, Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Through April 18.
Call: (202) 488-3300.