In 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway and blazed its way into American theater history with a mumbling Marlon Brando and a shocking display of violence and sexuality. A year later, Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke graced Broadway stages with a more complex and subtle drama of desire. Whereas Stanley and Stella Kowalski are content to satisfy their physical appetites, Alma and John, the central characters in Summer and Smoke, explore the question of whether something outside the body is possible, whether human beings are more than their intellectual and physical appetites, whether the soul truly exists. The theater students of Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville tackle this complicated script with energy and, supported by an excellent design staff and Chuck Harper's direction, create a satisfying production.
The plot is deceptively simple: Alma, a proper minister's daughter, longs for romance with her childhood friend, the wild and worldly John. She refuses his sexual advances; a crisis makes him change his ways, and when she's finally ready to give herself to him physically, he's no longer interested. As Alma and John, Wendy Renée Greenwood and Philip Leveling create some sizzling sexual tension. The large audience was riveted during their scenes, especially the second act scene when Alma offers herself to John. Although Greenwood often spoke too quickly, she clearly conveyed Alma's conflicting desires, and her final transition into a woman ready to embrace physical love was quite convincing. Leveling made John a likable cad, a reckless boy forced into the responsibility of adulthood.
Outside of Alma and John, the play contains two types of people: the broadly played comic-relief characters and the realistic dramatic characters. Alma's friends and family are the comic ones -- her crazy mother, scholarly pastor father and misfit friends. John's family and friends seem more like real people, and faculty member Peter Cocuzza as John's father and Petra Flores as his girlfriend, Rosa Gonzalez, are believable and compelling. The play is sometimes as frustrating for us as it is for Alma and John; the comic interludes with Alma's goofy friends and daffy mother aren't nearly as interesting as Alma and John's complicated relationship, and we grow impatient waiting for their next encounter.
There are fourteen scenes in the play, which could be deadly if handled awkwardly. Fortunately, Harper has an eye and an ear for storytelling, smoothly moving characters through locations and times, using the shifts to accentuate plot and character. Student designers Bryan J.A. Palmer on lights and Katie O'Connell on sound work together beautifully, using music and shadows to punctuate scenes. Set designer James R. Dorethy utilizes the full width and depth of the SIU-Edwardsville stage, creating realistic settings of both Alma and John's homes and the central image of an angel in a fountain, which stays lit throughout the show, turning from beautiful to vengeful as the story progresses. Beatrix L. Tennessen contributes lovely period costumes that also complement the action.
Williams wasn't completely satisfied with Summer and Smoke, rewriting and republishing it almost twenty years later as The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. His continued work on the play shows both his fascination and struggle with John and Alma's story of unrequited love and their conflicts between duty and desire, soul and body. Those conflicts were best embodied in this production in moments of silence -- in the pauses when characters were trying to figure out what was really happening between them. Alma and John may be the most complex characters written by Williams -- their motives are not transparent, and their decisions are layered and complicated.
Summer and Smoke is ultimately about the painful process of growing up, leaving childhood dreams behind and facing reality, making adult choices and living with the consequences. As such, it's a great play for student actors to tangle with, and though they didn't always trust the language completely or take enough time with transitions, they did succeed in making the story and characters interesting -- no small task, considering the density of Williams' language and themes.