Summer and Smoke at the Duke of York’s Theatre
Summer and Smoke is the ten-pound note you find in the pocket of an old coat, having forgotten it was there. A largely overlooked play by Tennessee Williams, here the drama is revived by young director Rebecca Frecknall in an expressive and sensory adaptation. In some ways, Frecknall honours the cultural moment of the piece with costumes that nod to the 1940s and faithfulness to the irresistibly quaint airs of post-war Mississippi folk. But the production is also very modern, with an expressionist makeover that provides the ideal backdrop for an examination of some timeless themes.
At the heart of the play is Alma, a preacher’s daughter whose childhood infatuation with the boy next door, John Buchanan, is awakened with a new passion when he returns to their small town of Glorious Hill for the summer. The young doctor John has a reputation for recklessness and womanising, but Alma finds her rational mind in conflict with something else as each battles with a hunger for something indefinable in the other.
This is a drama of opposing symbols: the vicar’s daughter and the doctor’s son; the microscope and the telescope; order and chaos; science and religion; the body and the soul. And where, asks the piece, does love sit within these universes?
These dichotomies are deconstructed over the course of the performance on a stage that is bare but for some dust on the floor and a semi-circle of pianos. These provide the haunting soundtrack that is an enduring whisper of unspoken truths, and beautiful solos by Anjana Vasan (Rosa) and Forbes Masson (Dr Buchanan) articulate the emotional charge of crucial moments when words are not enough.
Lighting is also used to great effect, changing from warm, dusty hues to the cold, clinical white light that ultimately illuminates with piercing clarity the final scene between John and Alma in a truly touching appeal for his love.
The play’s emotional realism transcends the abstract aesthetic of the production thanks to a stunning performance by Patsy Ferran in the leading role. The actress manages to inhabit both the comic and the tragic space – at times simultaneously – with such sensitivity and skill that the stage is hers throughout.
The ironic misalignment of the protagonists’ desires weaves a thread of sadness, but Frecknall’s closing message is one of feminism and hope. This Alma, though yet to reconcile the needs of her body and soul, breathes a sigh of relief and resolve as she disrobes herself of the suppression of her lost youth.
Photo: Marc Brenner
Summer and Smoke is at the Duke of York’s Theatre from 21st November until 19th January 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.