Uh oh! This is the second “summer” in a month to go up in “smoke.” The first one chronicled—or rather attempted– to chronicle the life of an African American diva from New England. In spite of negative press, that disco ball is continuing to spin on Broadway with Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.
Further downtown, the Transport Group and Classic Stage Company have joined forces to tell a much different story; this one involves Alma Winemiller (Marin Ireland) and her tempestuous romance with the boy next door, John Buchanan, Jr. (Nathan Darrow). Small town Mississippi serves as the setting for this production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. Two disparate productions, one similar reaction: neither are particularly good.
Director Jack Cummings III helms this tepid allegory that pits human desire against morality but has done it in such a way that all of the tension is threadbare. Williams’ describes his protagonist as “possessing a delicacy and elegance, a kind of airiness which is really natural to her as it is, in a less marked degree, to many Southern girls.” To that end, Ireland is an ideal choice. This accomplished and poised actor is comfortable in both classic and contemporary plays. Here, she is deeply layered and fully grasps the psychological depth of Alma. In turn, she delivers a stunning performance.
The same cannot be said for much of her fellow cast members, all of whom seem to be- stylistically- in different shows. Darrow brings an all too casual air to his character and the chemistry needed between the two suffers.
Elena Hurst shines as Rosa, a Flamenco dancer who seduces John. Tina Johnson is also a treat as local busybody Mrs. Bassett.
Beneath every one of Williams’ plays lies repression, sexual tension, and sadness. Dane Laffrey’s bare-bones stage and R. Lee Kennedy’s blinding lighting design do very little to create an atmosphere conducive to any of these qualities. Consequently, Ireland is saddled with the burden of pushing smoke for 2.5 hours in this misguided environment.
During a recent performance, drag star RuPaul was spotted in the audience. At the top of Act 2, he was conspicuously absent. Even he knows that sometimes, it’s better to sashay away than to endure ho-hum theatre.
Williams’ work is tragic enough. It doesn’t require the death knell of mediocre treatment. Between this production and the fact that Donna Summer and RuPaul were referenced in a review of a Tennessee Williams’ play, the classic American author must be rolling in his grave.
Let’s hope that Classic Stage’s next offering, the first major New York revival of Hammerstein and Bizet’s Carmen Jones, blazes with more desire.
Summer and Smoke runs through May 20th at Classic Stage Company 136 E. 13th Street. For further information, visit www.classicstage.org