Cool Passion

Paper Mill Playhouse heats up with ‘Summer and Smoke.’

By: Stuart Duncan
   Someone once said that stage productions were the single most expensive way of reaching the smallest number of people. Perhaps that is why we are seeing more and more co-productions between the major theater companies. Just this past weekend, we had an opening at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre of a show that had debuted in Chicago. And the current presentation of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn originated at Hartford Stage in Connecticut.
   Bravo if it means superior work. Through the years, critics have pointed out that Summer and Smoke is by no means Williams’ finest work. The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire certainly are better loved, probably because both have strong characters and more intense focus. Williams himself rewrote Summer several times, although he admitted he felt the character of Alma, the frustrated spinster, was his favorite. She is not of the caliber of an Amanda Wingate, nor a Blanche DuBois. Soft-spoken, yet with steel running through every sentence, eccentric, yet positive in her bearings, she is a character one doesn’t soon forget.
   And at Paper Mill the role is played by Amanda Plummer with such shadings that one may never forget. She allows her unrequited passion for the handsome Dr. John Buchanan to gradually overcome her natural hesitation, hinting, but only hinting, at the turmoil within her. There is none of the outright lust of Streetcar, nor yet the poignancy of Menagerie. It is cool, reserved, and all the more aching. She gets wonderful support from Kevin Anderson as the doctor — wanton, assigning bedroom tastes to women. And the two find real stage chemistry.
   Director Michael Wilson, who has been called one of the foremost interpreters of Williams’ works (Bonnie Monte of The Shakespeare Theatre in Madison would be another) is not afraid to use this chemistry to emphasize Alma’s duality — on the surface as proper as can be; below as broken and vulnerable as any of Williams’ other ladies.
   Jennifer Harmon has a delicious time spreading what little humor Williams allows as Alma’s outspoken, wacky mother. Stephanie Beatriz flashes talent as the hedonistic Rosa Gonzales. Marta Reiman oozes sex appeal as Alma’s friend Nellie Ewell.
   Tony Straiges’ set design is perhaps too airy for a play that suggests small-town Mississippi stagnation. But it works well for the ending which in typical Williams fashion raises a question rather than comes to a conclusion. Rui Rita’s lighting design is outstanding.
Summer and Smoke continues at Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive in Millburn,
through Feb. 11. Performances: Wed. 7:30 p.m.; Thurs., Sun. 2, 7:30 p.m.; Fri.
8 p.m.; Sat. 2, 8 p.m. Tickets cost $19-$68. For information, call (973) 376-4343.
On the Web: