Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Norma Saldivar's Production of "Summer and Smoke"

                      Summer and Smoke

                                                        By: Tennessee Williams
                                                   Directed By: Norma Saldivar
                                                        November 1-16, 2013
                                                     Dramaturg: Steffen Silvis

“The wanderer later chose this spot of rest
Where marble clouds support the sea
 And where was finally born a hero.
 By that time summer and smoke were past.”
“Emblems of Conduct”—Hart Crane

The opening night of José Quintero’s 1952 production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke transformed American theatre. Quintero’s choice of Williams’ play as his second production for the new Circle in the Square Theatre in Greenwich Village was surprising, as Summer and Smoke had been a critical and financial failure on Broadway in 1948. But Quintero sensed that there were layers of the play that hadn’t been properly explored in its Midtown debut, and assigned himself the task of discovering them. His production became the first major triumph of the new Off-Broadway movement, granting the term both geographic and aesthetic significance.

     The unqualified success of Quintero’s opening night caught everyone by surprise, including Tennessee Williams; neither he nor any of his friends had considered attending. Then there were New York’s theatre critics, who found themselves reassessing their initial verdict of Summer and Smoke. John Gassner described Quintero’s production as “a triumph of atmosphere and theatrical poetry.”[1] Brooks Atkinson, one of the kinder reviewers of the original Broadway mounting, wrote that “nothing has happened in the theatre in a long time as admirable as this production,” further arguing that the play was a “finer piece of literature” than Williams’ greatest success, A Streetcar Named Desire.[2] After Williams finally saw Quintero’s production, he embraced the director in a bear hug; Williams’ enthusiasm was such that he didn’t appreciate that he was painfully stabbing Quintero’s foot with his umbrella.[3] The production signaled for Williams that Summer and Smoke would finally be considered a worthy successor to Streetcar and The Glass Menagerie.

                                                         Agent Audrey Wood and her clients, Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers

     The writing of Summer and Smoke was haphazard. Williams began the play in 1946 in a Nantucket cottage he shared with Carson McCullers, who sat at one end of a large dining table reworking her novel A Member of the Wedding into a play, while Williams sat at the other. (Summer and Smoke is dedicated to McCullers.) Interestingly, Williams was working on both Summer and Smoke and A Streetcar Named Desire simultaneously, and the connecting tissue between the two is Williams’ one-act play Portrait of a Madonna, which he had recently re-edited. While the sexual anxiety and madness of Madonna’s central figure, Lucretia Collins, will inform William’s portrait of Streetcar’s Blanche DuBois (Lucretia, too, is led away at the play’s conclusion by a kind psychiatric doctor and stern nurse), her biographical details serve as foundation for Summer and Smoke’s Alma Winemiller. Lucretia, like Alma after her, is a spinster from Glorious Hill, Mississippi, and the daughter of an Episcopal divine. (Alma is also a product of Williams’ 1947 short story “The Yellow Bird,” in which another woman named Alma, also an Episcopal minister’s daughter, embraces dissolution and the demonic in the darker corners of New Orleans.)

     Other than Camino Real, Summer and Smoke is Williams’ most markedly citational drama, informed by the playwright’s allegiance to the Decadent and Symbolist poets he appointed as literary progenitors (a trait and taste shared with Eugene O’Neill in Long Day’s Journey into Night). Summer and Smoke itself functions as Symbolist drama, a fact which, for many critics, militates against its effectiveness: “character is subordinated to symbolic function.”[4] At base is the hoary thematic binary of body/soul, represented by John Buchanan, a sensualist whose connection to the body is literalized by his being a physician, and the spinsterish Alma, whose very name means “soul.” They in turn are symbolically represented by an anatomical chart (the original working title for the play was The Anatomy Chart) and a marble fountain shaped like an angel, whose “blood is mineral water.”[5] But through the gravitational pull of nearby Moon Lake, a site of sensuality and dissipation, Summer and Smoke becomes an allegory of ironic fate, where “the tables are turned with a vengeance.”[6]

     Finally, the confessional, autobiographical aspect of the play must be considered; Williams’ theatricalized self. Much like Flaubert’s famous admission that “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Williams informed one cast that “I’m Alma.”[7] In his Memoirs, published in 1975, Williams wrote that “Miss Alma Winemiller may very well be the best female portrait I have drawn in a play. She simply seemed to exist somewhere in my being.”[8] Arguably due to this very identification between writer and character, Williams continually revised the play, completely rewriting it after its Broadway failure and retitling it The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Williams professed preference for this version, though he was very much alone. By 1975, any mention of Eccentricities vanishes from Memoirs. Conversely, Summer and Smoke retains its enthusiasts and has maintained its rightful place in America’s theatrical repertoire since its Off-Broadway resurrection in 1952.


1. Gassner, John. “Broadway in Review.” Educational Theatre Journal , Vol. 4, No. 4 (Dec., 1952), pp. 323-328.

2. Quoted in Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985. Page 179.

3. Ibid. Page 181.

4. Bigsby, C.W.E. Modern American Drama: 1945-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Page 50.

5. Williams, Tennessee. Summer and Smoke. Tennessee Williams: Four Plays. New York: Signet Classics, 1976. Page 111.

6. Ibid. Page 119.

7. Spoto, page 318.

8. Williams, Tennessee. Memoirs. New York: Doubleday, 1975. Page 78.

University Theatre's Production of Summer and Smoke:

Theater and Dance
Tennessee Williams' tale of a missed love, 10/31-11/16, UW Vilas Hall-Mitchell Theatre, at 7:30 pm Wednesdays-Saturdays and 2 pm, Sundays. $23. 608-265-2787

Cost: $23
Call: 608-265-2787


More Information:

Summer and Smoke
UW-Madison University Theatre presents Summer and Smoke, Tennessee Williams’
simmering Southern romance. Professor Norma Saldivar directs this tale of lust, betrayal and the passions that divide two lovers during one fateful summer.

Williams masterfully crafts the story of Alma and John, who are coming of age in turnof-the-century Mississippi. While Alma is proper and reserved, John is passionate and carefree.
Drawn to each other during a long, hot summer, the two must navigate through both newfound freedoms and the restrictions of a small Southern town. This unique love story depicts two young people at odds with family and tradition, attempting to understand themselves – and each other.

Written by Tennessee Williams in 1945, Summer and Smoke debuted in 1948 and has
become a notable addition to the dramatic canon and a classic of American drama. Summer and Smoke displays many of the characteristics that have made other Williams plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roofso deservedly beloved. Two powerful central characters, a lushly realized Southern setting and Williams’ lyrical, elegant dialogue make this
an evening at the theatre that will stay with you long after the curtain call.

Performers include Trevor Rees(John Buchanan), Chelsea Anderson (Alma Winemiller), Alejandro Ortiz (Gonzales), Beeshoua Lee (Rosa Gonzales),Bill Bolz (Dr. Buchanan), Amanda Connors(Nellie Ewell), Brendan Getches(Roger Doremus), Celeste Lindstrom (Mrs. Bassett), Cody Luck (Archie Young), Doug Greenberg (Vernon), Isabella Virrueta (Rosemary), Jim Buske (Rev. Winemiller), Heather Pickering (Mrs. Winemiller), and Steve Ripley (Dusty). The production team is comprised of both faculty and MFA lighting, set, and costume design
students, including Christa Lewandowski (costume design), Shuxing Fan (set design), Robert Stepek (lighting design) and Rob Sayre (sound design).

Summer and Smoke opens Friday, November 1st and runs through Saturday, November
16th with matinees on Sunday, November 3rd and Sunday, November 10th. Performances will take place in the Mitchell Theatre, 821 University Avenue. Evening performances begin at 7:30 PM and matinees begin at 2PM. A post-performance talkback with the cast will be held on November 14. Individual tickets for all performances are $23 (general public) or $16 (UW students). Discounts are available for senior citizens and Friends of University Theatre.

Purchase tickets by phone at (608) 265-ARTS (2787), in person at the Vilas Hall Box Office, 821 University Ave or order on-line at

7:30 pm (2:00 Sunday matinees)
10/31, 11/1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14, 15, 16
Mitchell Theatre, Vilas Communication Hall, 821 University Ave, Madison
Adult $23
608-265-2787 (also

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