Monday, November 5, 2012

"Summer and Smoke" at Theatre in the Round

Tennessee Williams is one of my favorite playwrights. He has created several memorable women (or perhaps versions of the same woman), among them Amanda Wingfield, Blanche DuBois, and Maggie the Cat. I have recently become acquainted with Alma Winemiller in Theatre in the Round's sublime production of Summer and Smoke, and I am utterly charmed by her complexities and heart-broken by her plight. Like all of Tennessee Williams' women, Alma is a genteel Southern woman with clear ideas of the way life should be, whose story turns tragic when reality doesn't live up to her expectations. 

I love a good unrequited love story, and this is one of the best I've seen. The kind that makes you think maybe things can work out for these two crazy kids, and then dashes your hopes to the ground as reality sets back in and it all falls apart. The prim and proper minister's daughter Alma is in love with the boy next door, the playboy doctor's son John, who grew up to be a doctor himself. Alma is not the type of woman John usually keeps company with, but he's drawn to her. Alas, theirs is a love that can never be. She wants him physically, but she can't admit that even to herself because it doesn't fit into the world she's created for herself. He wants her soul, but he doesn't even know what that means because in his clinical, earthly world the soul doesn't even exist. This creates an attraction and tension between them that can never be relieved, and it's unbearably tragic to watch it all unfold. There are some light and funny moments in the play as well, especially in the first act. But Tennessee Williams did not write comedies (one misguided Broadway production of Streetcar notwithstanding), so we know there's no chance for a happy ending for our couple.

John and Alma
(Casey Hoekstra and Joanna Harmon)
The show is all about Alma and John. Yes there are other people onstage and several of them have nice moments (including Karen Bix as Alma's childlike mother, Ty Hudson as Alma's sweet but boring suitor, and Tara Lucchino who almost succeeds in making me like Alma's rival for John's affection), but the success of the play hinges on the performances of Joanna Harmon and Casey Hoekstra as Alma and John. And boy do they deliver. Joanna, a member of the inventive physical theater company Live Action Set, plays Alma with a nervous fluttery energy that never subsides. She puts her training to good use in this very physical performance; you can see the tension in Alma's body as she interacts with various characters. Casey, a graduate of the U of M/Guthrie program making his Twin Cities stage debut (to which I say welcome and please come back soon!), plays John with a relaxed intensity, all slow knowing smiles as he lounges and watches Alma. Whenever either was off stage I waited for their return, and the best scenes are the ones with the two of them together. Their relationship is so intense and complex, perplexing and familiar. One particularly intense love scene took place literally a few feet in front of me on the intimate Theatre in the Round stage, which made me wish I had one of those fans from the Winemiller's sitting room!

The busy and multi-talented Randy Reyes directed the play and did a beautiful job with the intricate dialogue and intense scenes. With a set design by Rob Jensen, the small stage is packed with set pieces that manage to create three distinct settings, two of which interact with each other as John and Alma stare out their windows across the yard at each other. The details are impeccable as the audience gets a close-up view due to the unique in-the-round stage (the usher led me right through the Winemiller's living room to my seat on the opposite side, and I was close enough to peek over an actor's shoulder at an authentic-looking photo album). The costumes (by Carolann Winther) are evocative of the time, place, and character, from John's white suit to Alma's conservative clothes to Rosa's vibrant red dress.

I've been to Theatre in the Round several times in the past few years for Fringe shows, but it's been a while since I've seen a Theatre in the Round production. Currently celebrating their 61st season, they are the longest running theater in Twin Cities. Even the Guthrie has only been around a mere 50 years! They were recently featured on one of my favorite shows MN Original (a weekly series on tpt that showcases local artists of all types of media). You can watch that feature online to learn about the interesting challenges presented by the in-the-round design. I will definitely be back to Theatre in the Round before next year's Fringe; they have several interesting shows coming up this season, including the Pulitzer Prize winning play Rabbit Hole in January. Unfortunately Summer and Smoke has already closed, so if you missed it, I apologize, because you missed a good one.