“Rarely-performed Tennessee Williams play” are words that can make the heart sink. There’s usually a reason something is rarely performed, and Williams wrote so much that, inevitably, genius only touched a few of his pieces. He himself hated the 1948 premiere of Summer and Smoke, and audiences saw it as a step down from the magnificence of Streetcar, his previous play.
John Lahr’s 700-page biography of Williams glosses over the play, and it’s only just mentioned in Williams’ own memoirs. Yet here director Rebecca Frecknall makes a case for it being as important and as rich a play as Streetcar or The Glass Menagerie.
During a hot summer in Mississippi, a minister’s daughter, Alma, comes close to consummating the love she’s long had for the boy next door, doctor’s son John. But she’s a prude and he’s a rebel, and so it never quite comes off.
Patsy Ferran is proving herself to be consistently extraordinary. As Alma, she has the ability to be, with one facial expression, a world-weary old maid and, with another, a rabbit in headlights, green and childlike. Although her performance is full of detailed movements, it never feels mannered. She plays out the huge struggle between her pious, almost puritan upbringing and the desire to submit to lust; between what she wants to do, and what is seemly.
On the flip side, Matthew Needham’s John is a sultry rebel for whom there are only three important things in life: the head, the belly and the genitals. “I’ve fed all three,” he says to Alma, “you’ve fed none”.
In Needham’s company Ferran becomes awkward and gangly, not sure what to do with her arms and surprised at the length of her neck. Until the final scenes the top button of her blouse remains done up, until she reaches the revelation that she can use and enjoy her body, in a reversal of roles that makes the play all the more devastating.
That kind of detail – the significance of a button – is what makes Frecknall’s production so captivating in its every second. There isn’t a single spare or wasted gesture. It’s one of those productions that finds the perfect balance between style and substance.
Frecknall’s got style, absolutely: the action plays out on Tom Scutt’s bare wooden set surrounded by a horseshoe of nine pianos, surging into huge clanging sounds or subsiding into single notes, playing Angus MacRae’s relentless score, a minimalistic concatenation of pianos. Scenes blur one into the next, the set never changes, and Lee Curran’s lighting burns orange and smoky throughout the play like midsummer.
But Frecknall uses that stylistic approach to scrape at the play’s themes – shame versus indulgence, body versus soul – to expose them. Watching the production is like watching a bruise form on a piece of flesh. Sometimes it may take 70 years for a play to find the right director, the right production, and so find itself. It’s worth the wait.