Alexandra Trow ’09 made me cry like a baby, and I don’t care who knows it. As Alma Winemiller in the Dramat’s production of Tennesse Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” at the University Theater, she is an artist of grief and tension who not only steals every scene she is in but also haunts those in which she is absent. Her every word throbs with such sincere melancholy and sacred sentimentality that you’ll cry, too.
The play is set in Glorious Hill, a sleepy, mid-century southern town. Alma, a minister’s daughter who is all-too-conscious of the fact that she is on the cusp of being too old to marry, begins a complicated and charged relationship with John Buchanan Jr. (Bobby Allen ’09), a young doctor who spends his time drinking and partying at the Moon Lake Casino. What follows is an exploration of the eternal problem of physical v. metaphysical love (hence, a doctor and a minister’s daughter).
With her incredible performance, Trow throws down the gauntlet for the rest of the cast, and the results, although likewise strong, are not quite as consistent. As John Buchanan Jr., Allen is a whirlwind of hidden rage and fear. Similarly, Danielle Frimer’s turn as Alma’s dementia-stricken and vicious mother, Mrs. Winemiller, makes you laugh and then cringe at your own cruelty. Alma and John dominate much of the play, and the chemistry between them kept me on the verge of yelling, “Kiss! Kiss!” every time there was a pause in their conversation. The two actors construct an impenetrable and captivating void.
That said, the remainder of the performance is marked by glimmers rather than a consistent shine. O’Hagan Blades ’10, for example, is bubbly and refreshing in her coy innocence as Nellie Ewell, a former student of Alma (a music teacher) who unknowingly competes for the love of the doctor. But too many of the other performances often threaten to lapse into stereotype. The Latin American accents of Noah Bokat-Lindell ’12 and Adriel Saporta ’11 as Gonzales, the owner of the town casino, and his daughter, respectively, come on too strong. This is unfortunate, since both seem to have a pretty solid understanding of who they are in the grand scheme of this town. Other minor characters, like Alma’s friends Mrs. Bassett (Isabel Siragusa ’11) and Rosemary (Sarah DeLappe ’12), likewise exude more of a sense of being primped, polite southern ladies than of being people.
Benjamin Mosse DRA ’04, the hired director, sticks mostly to the source text, with the very notable exception of the dance interludes interspersed throughout the performance. The dancers, Jennifer Cohen ’09, Susan Steinman ’10 and Emily Suran ’12, are Alma’s doppelgangers, each representing a different repressed portion of her tortured subconscious. In addition to dancing, the doppelgangers eerily observe Alma’s actions from the lattice backdrop upstage. The dances, choreographed by Nicholas Murphy ’12, are well-conceived and well-executed, except, oddly, for Cohen’s dance with Murphy himself. The combination of an ill-suited song with the couple’s strange intertwinings and separations makes for movement that seems too much like a “Dirty Dancing” parody. Murphy’s other choreography is far more successful: Steinman convulses across the stage, and Suran mutilates herself by crashing to the floor over and over again in tragic repetition.
My gripe with the dancing is not that it’s bad. It just seemed to me like a strange and jarring artistic choice. As Archie Kramer (Miles Jacoby ’11) says in the final scene, “Sometimes un poquito is plenty.” The show itself is already powerful. Adding such dramatic dancing to already gripping performances is overkill. The interludes detract from the momentum of the show: So absorbed was I in the twirling and falling that each time a dance sequence ended I was forced to reorient myself. Practically speaking, the show weighs in at 2½ hours, a serious time commitment, especially for a straight play. By the last dance sequence, I found myself getting antsy.
I don’t mean to dissuade you. See this show. I repeat: see this show. Despite its shortcomings, “Smoke” moved me more than any show has in quite a while. It’s classic, it’s raw, it’s real, but more than that, it is heartbreakingly, achingly human