"Summer and Smoke"?
Think body and soul.
That's the overarching theme of this 1947 Tennessee Williams play, which is one of the early successes that has led to his position as a major 20th century playwright.
The central characters in the piece, now being presented as part of the Shaw Festival, are Alma Winemiller, daughter of a very conservative minister, and John Buchanan Jr., the handsome next-door neighbor.
John has just returned to Glorious Hill, Miss., from medical school as a lustful, strongly outgoing man feeling confined in his small hometown and seeking what solace he can find in booze and women. His craving restlessness is the "summer" in this play.
On the surface, Alma is not one of those women. She has secretly adored John from childhood. But growing up in the very proper atmosphere of the rectory has left Alma with all of her perfectly normal desires repressed and an aura of aloof, almost mystical soulfulness in their place. She is the "smoke."
So much is unspoken, but it becomes clear that John has a great longing for Alma that he cannot express. He deeply respects her propriety, but in his mind it makes her above him and untouchable. In one of the pivotal moments when Alma has apparently felt her first sexual stirring, John confesses to Alma: "I'm more afraid of your soul than you are of my body."
So here are two more of Longfellow's "ships that pass in the night," barely touching fingertips but never able to embrace.
Nicole Underhay develops the character of Alma with superb control of the advancing awareness of her growing needs, excellent projection of the wide range of responses her role requires and a comely Southern drawl to unite all her pronouncements. But she seemed to start from a too-simplistic base, and it takes several scenes before one senses she is really in command.
As John, Jeff Meadows is as steady in his performance as his character is erratic in behavior.
This may be the core of Williams' play, but its texture is greatly enriched by a bevy of secondary roles. Peter Hutt is excellent as the dour Rev. Winemiller, and Sharry Flett is so good that she almost becomes a scene-stealer as the demented Mrs. Winemiller, who thinks about nothing except ice cream but is the only one who sees the truth in the Alma-John relationship.
Guy Bannerman as the senior Dr. Buchanan is masterful in a scene in which he counsels Alma about her repressed instincts; Nicola Correia-Damude is appropriately sleazy as Rosa Gonzales, John's low-class mistress; Jay Turvey is convincing as Roger, a stiff, formal suitor of Alma's; and Brigitte Robinson as Mrs. Bassett enlivens several scenes with meddlesome and obstreperous comments.
Unhappily, the small Royal George stage forces compromises with Williams' explicit staging directions that set designer Peter Hartwell cannot overcome.
Within these confines, stage director Neil Munro handles the movement of the cast with fine effectiveness, and Christina Poddubiuk's costumes are always on the mark.
The play's 13 scenes are smoothed, often melded seamlessly by Marc Desormeaux's incidental music, ranging from folksy to Coplandesque melancholy.
"Summer and Smoke"
Review: Three stars (out of four)
Running through Oct. 27 in the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. For more information, call (800) 511-SHAW or visit www.shawfest.com