SUMMER AND SMOKE a noble effort at College of the Desert

Left to right: Allison Feist as Alma, Megan Comacho as Rosa and Doug Newton as John in Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams at College of the Desert, Palm Springs, CA.

SUMMER AND SMOKE by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Fergus G. Currie. Drama Department at College of the Desert (COD), Pollock Theatre, Palm Desert, California. 760-773-2565. Tickets are also available at the College of the Desert Bookstore and on-line at March 16-25.

Tennessee Williams is noted as one of the greatest playwrights in American history and is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning plays A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In 1948, savoring the acclamations of his 1947 production of Streetcar, his play Summer and Smoke opened to tepid reviews and a short run at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre. Four years later a rewrite, directed by Jose Quintero in an Off Broadway production at the Circle in the Square starred Geraldine Page who played Alma and continued in that role opposite Laurence Harvey in the film version.

Rewrites and title changes are an integral part of the play’s history. Alma Winemiller, the star crossed protagonist appears years earlier in a short story entitled The Yellow Bird. The first stage version began as The Chart of Anatomy since an internal anatomical chart is woven into the structure of the play and becomes a physical inner actuality as distinguished from the non-tangible inner soul. He called his final rewrite, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale and added another nemesis to Alma’s woes without disturbing the spiritual theme of the play. A review can be found on As a point of interest, an opera Summer and Smoke by Lee Hoiby with a libretto by Lanford Wilson was performed in 1971.

Williams further emphasizes internal spiritual versus the external actuality by using the term “doppelgänger” defined as a paranormal double living within the same person.

College of the Desert Drama is to be admired for undertaking this particular 14 character, 13 scene play. The author has written and insists on detailed stage directions, set design, lighting cues and defines the “basic over-all mood which is to be established.” It does not take much imagination to see fragments of Blanche Dubois and other Tennessee favorite heroines in Alma Winemiller (Allison Feist). She is the moralistic, repressed only daughter of the authoritarian Reverend (Will Rian) and mentally unstable Mrs. Winemiller (Elana Sanchez)who is a kleptomaniac and has regressed to a childish behavior. Since her early teen years Alma has been forced into being her parent’s caretakers. Blessed with an excellent singing voice she performs at many social functions in the repressive town of Glorious, Mississippi. Don’t you just love that name?

Sadly, Alma’s lack of self-confidence causes her to have an irritating high pitched laugh and annoying hand gestures that are mimicked by the locals. In this stifling environment Alma has formed an “intellectual group” to “talk about books and read things out loud to each other.” This gives Williams ample opportunity to create characters giving full credence to the background of the play taking place the early 1900s. There is busy body widow Mrs. Basset (Jennifer Kiehl), public librarian Rosemary (Megan Noble), pseudo-intellect Vernon ( Tyler Fryatt), and willowy young Roger Doremus (Antony Gomez) who has a touch of fey. There is also a non-member of the “intellectual group” Nellie Ewell ( Hannah Seals) Alma’s young music student whose mother has “loose morals.” Nellie becomes another competitor for the affection of the other main character, John Buchanan, Jr. (Doug Newton) ) who lives next door.

John is a young, brilliant handsome neighbor doctor whose altruistic doctor father John Sr. (Carl D. Bollin) is appalled by this son’s wastrel life style. Herein lays the conflict between the Alma who secretly loves John. Both doctors recognize the inner turmoil within Alma manifesting as hyperventilation panic attacks that she insists require medical attention thus giving ample reason for her frequent visits next door. The scenes between young John and Alma are examples of Williams’ poetic writing imbued with sexual undertones. Throughout the play the gradual emergence of Alma’s inner sexual desires contrasting with the evolution of John’s growth into responsible doctor.

Before this takes place physical conflict rears its ugly head in the characters of Gonzales (Ivan Ortega) the owner of the notorious Moon Lake Casino and his over-sexed daughter Rosa (Megan Comacho ) who has captured the carnal personae of John who, because of his huge gambling debts to her father, is forced into a promise of marriage.

The beautifully written final scene in Part 1 is a thing of beauty, clearly defining the dichotomy of spiritual love and the “coupling of beasts.” Alma insists that while some people bring just their bodies to the coupling others can bring their hearts and even their souls to it. John reminds her that Alma is Spanish for soul and challenges her come to his office and to see the anatomy chart and show him “where the beautiful soul is located.”

Part two begins with a dramatic confrontation between Gonzales and Dr. Buchanan, Sr. that initiates the start of John’s miraculous change in personality as he takes on the altruistic mantle begun by his father. John insists that it is Alma’s goodness that has brought about his conversion. As there is in nature, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and Alma’s evil doppelgänger comes forth as she accompanies the young salesman Archie Kramer (Austin Schroeter) to the Moonlight Casino in the final scene of the play.

The entire ensemble cast performs admirable and Allison Feist in the lead role is being commended for her complete mastery of the text and her initial depiction of Alma’s insecurity with fluttery hand motions and neurotic laughter. These gestures become uni-dimensional, lacking nuance and depth when it is time for her devastating line “she doesn’t exist anymore, she died last summer - -suffocated in smoke from something on fire within her.” Doug Newton has the physical attributes to play the much sought after lothario but director Fergus G. Currie would be advised to give him line direction and insist his dialog not be directed at the floor even though it may be an attempt to define Dr. John’s insecurity.

Even though there were light and sound miscues on opening night, the multi-area set, complete with a dominating Archangel Fountain statue center stage, would probably receive Tennessee Williams’ complete approval.

The ensemble cast consists of current C.O.D. theatre students Doug Newton, Allison Feist, Will Rian, Elana Sanchez, Hannah Seals, Jacquelyn Kay Hermosilla, Carl Bolin, Ivan Ortega, Jennifer Kiehl, Anthony Gomez, Austin Schroeter, Tyler Fryatt, Megan Noble, Robert Vernier, Megan Camacho, and Ashton Loyo. Diamond Braverman is the scenic/properties designer. Lights and sound are designed by Doug Ridgeway. The hair and make-up designer is Lynda Shaeps.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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