Home > Carol Davis, Theatre > ‘Summer and Smoke’ sizzles at New Village Arts

‘Summer and Smoke’ sizzles at New Village Arts

Jo Anne Glover and John De Carlo in 'Summer and Smoke'

By Carol Davis

Carol Davis

CARLSBAD, California — There’s a glowing ember just beneath the surface in Tennessee Williams characters, Alma Winemiller and John Buchanan in his Summer And Smoke that sizzles, but never ignites. It’s frustrating as well as intriguing watching the two volley back and forth teasing and retreating, coming close to intimacy, but Williams never allows it to boil over.

Compared to the heat generated in Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (which won Williams his second Pulitzer) the repressed Alma of Summer And Smoke (1948) is mere child’s play in contrast to Maggie the Cat on “Roof” (1955) and Blanche in “Desire”. It doesn’t diminish, however, Alma’s sexually repressed feelings of desire for her childhood nemesis and friend John. The two had been drawn to each other since they were children.

Williams struggled with “Smoke” renaming it several times calling it “Chart of Anatomy” in 1948 and later “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale” in 1964 finally settling on the title. It never hit the stride of either “Glass Menagerie” or “Streetcar” for Williams. Be that as it may, all his female characters suffer the same deep-seated sexual repressions and struggle with that balance between mind, soul and body and Alma is no different.

New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad is mounting Summer And Smoke through June 20th well into the summer season, with about as fine a cast as can be assembled. Seldom done, artistic director and founding mother of NVA Kristianne Kurner, mentions in the program notes that she ‘fell in love with  Summer And Smoke as an undergraduate theatre student’ and she wanted to kick off the summer as season well as end season nine with this production.

With Jo Ann Glover in the starring role of Alma showing off her genteel Southern mannerisms and somewhat ‘above it all attitude’, one can compare the message of Williams’ own upbringing with his mother who impressed upon her son that they lived in a town where only status mattered.

Summer And Smoke takes place in Glorious Hill, Mississippi in 1910. Alma and John (John DeCarlo) have been neighbors since childhood. They teased and taunted each other throughout their growing up years. John’s father is the respected town doctor of the same name (Davis Macy-Beckwith) and Alma’s father is the Reverend Winemiller (Jack Missett). Her mother, Mrs. Winemiller (Dana Case) suffered a breakdown long ago and Alma, aside from organizing small clubs, teaching voice to young women with little or no talent and singing at patriotic functions, runs their household.

John has just returned home from finishing medical school much to the excitement of Alma (meaning soul in Spanish) who can barely restrain herself when she sees him. The best she can muster when she does though are a few giggles; admissions to taking too many pills and just being self-conscious acting like a schoolgirl. John, on the other hand has honed in on his skills of gambling, drink, and a reputation for loose women while at school, so much so that his father barely let him come to live in his childhood home again and continue with his practice.

When Alma agrees to go to the edge of town to the Moon Lake Casino with John and he tries to seduce her she turns away, reminding him that primal behaviors are essentially ‘self destructive’. Her goal is to have him change his ways and marry her and his is to open her up to new pleasures. He in turn encourages her to ‘explore her physical nature’.

When that little exercise fails Alma leaves him to his own devices; he opting out to run away with the casino owner’s daughter, Rosa Gonzales (Nadia Guevara) with whom he has already had a tryst and she telling the senior doctor what his son’s intentions are. It pretty much sets the stage for a tragic event that turns John’s life around and leaves Alma more isolated and unhappy than before.

As time passes she rethinks her beliefs and is now willing to be with him both physically and spiritually but he refuses her advances and accepts her mental and spiritual connection as a way of being, confessing that the thought of the two of them together frightens him. She later learns that he is engaged to her former voice student Nellie Ewell (Aimee Burdette). Once again, fate will determine the outcomes of their choices.

With young actors Roma Watkins and Jonah Gerche (artistic director Kristianne Kurner’s son) as the younger Alma and John setting the tone for the conflicts to follow, the two youngsters are perfect as they give us a glimpse into who they will become in their adult lives while running, walking and strutting on and off the stage throughout the evening often bisecting their elders. As they morph into their adult counterparts Glover and DeCarlo strike a balance intended to keep the conflict alive and the flame glittering without fully igniting.

Glover’s prim posture and quirky ways of expressing herself without actually falling head over heels for John while displaying her repressed sexual feelings felt in grim contrast to DeCarlo’s responsiveness yet aloofness in mannerisms and actions. While she croons and sways over her just being around him, DeCarlo’s John seems more remote and detached, at the same time implying to her his intentions. He never convinces, however that what he wants is burning inside him. I wanted to be more persuaded.

Dana Case is perfectly off the wall as Alma’s daft mother and Jack Missett plays the good Reverend with restraint, humiliation and embarrassment. Fine support comes from David Macy-Beckwith as Dr. Buchanan, Nadia Guevera struts her sexiness without reserve and does it well, Aimee Burdette’s Nellie is as high strung as Alma, but unlike Alma throws caution to the wind while hanging all over Johnny and barely holding herself together as she tries to show Alma her shiny engagement ring.

Both Kurner with an assist from Daren Scott manage to move a fairly large cast (at least for NVA) of fifteen very well on the long NVA stage designed by Tim Wallace to show us the Winemiller’s parlor on one side and the Doctors office on the other with a large fountain set in the center of what is the local plaza where John and Alma usually met as did other locals. Mary Larson’s period costume design is right on target; John’s forever white suits and Alma’s high necked dresses say it all. Adam Brick’s sound design gives us the background music and noises depicting times and events and Karin Filijan’s lighting design is perfect.

Summer And Smoke might be considered one of Williams’s stepchildren, but New Village Arts is giving it a first class airing.  It’s worth a try.

See you at the theatre

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Dates: May 27-June 20

Organization: New Village Arts Theatre

Phone: 760-433-3254

Production Type: Drama

Where: 2787 State Street, Carlsbad, California 92008

Ticket Prices:

Web: newvillagearts.org

Venue: New Village Arts Theatre

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Theatre critic Davis is based in San Diego

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