Touchstone Theatre

at the Halsted Theatre Centre

We humans have a dual nature. Physically, we’re endowed with the same urges that drive all species toward self-preservation and procreation. At the same time we’re capable of transcending our animal nature through imagination, which tantalizes us with visions of what could be. Reconciling these two sides of ourselves is a universal problem, and Tennessee Williams took a hard look at it in his 1947 play Summer and Smoke.

The play revolves around two characters who have failed to achieve this tricky reconciliation. Alma, whose father is a minister and whose mother is mentally unstable, grew up contemptuous of carnal desires, giving priority to spiritual impulses. She compares the soul to a Gothic cathedral, with its arched doorways, vaulted ceilings, and mighty spires “all reaching up to something beyond attainment!” To her the Gothic cathedral symbolizes “the everlasting struggle and aspiration for more than our human limits have placed in our reach.”

The problem is that she lusts after young John Buchanan, a childhood friend who lives next door. John has a distinctly different attitude toward his animal nature–he believes in satisfying every desire. During an argument he forces Alma to look at the anatomy charts in his father’s doctor’s office. “This upper story’s the brain, which is hungry for something called truth and doesn’t get much but keeps on feeling hungry,” he says, pointing at the charts. “This middle’s the belly which is hungry for food. This part down here is the sex which is hungry for love because it is sometimes lonesome. I’ve fed all three, as much of all three as I could or as much as I wanted–You’ve fed none.”

He defies her to show him where the soul resides in the jumble of blood and guts on the anatomy charts. Of course she can’t, so he assumes he has won the argument. But by the end of the play “the tables have turned with a vengeance,” as Alma puts it, and each is following the path formerly trod by the other.

Williams said he identified with Alma because he too reversed himself in adulthood, rejecting sexual repression in favor of profligacy. His sympathy for her is apparent, and the speeches he gives her display passion and vulnerability. Her biggest problem, the playwright seems to be saying, is her desire to be loved. To gain the acceptance of her father, she has tried to repress her sexual nature and emphasize her spiritual side. But when she wants John to love her, she concludes she must abandon herself to her physical desires, even though she doesn’t really want to.

Director Ina Marlowe has taken a solemn, almost reverent approach to the play. She obviously admires Williams’s writing and has tried to fortify his words with forceful stage action. But she seems to have overdirected Adrianne Cury, whose portrait of Alma as a hysterical neurotic desperately trying to deny her own sexual feelings seems stiff and contrived. Instead of allowing Alma’s personality to emerge from within, Cury seems to construct it entirely on the outside. She delivers a nervous laugh here, a pointless gesture there, as though she’s simply following the director’s instructions. As a result her character seems more like an awkward marionette than a spontaneous flesh-and-blood person.

In contrast, Tracy Letts’s performance as John Buchanan is balanced and relaxed. He makes his character seem sexy but not smarmy, egotistical but not obnoxious. And Melinda Moonahan effectively portrays Alma’s slightly demented mother–a foreshadowing of Alma herself in middle age.