Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke is about opposing forces: the microscopic and the infinite, the physical and the spiritual, anarchy and order, sanity and madness, and the thankless task we humans have trying to work out where exactly we fit into all this.
It tackles these swooping metaphysical questions through the prism of unrequited love. Alma – “it’s Spanish for ‘soul’” – first appears on an empty stage, spot-lit, gasping painfully for air as if drowning in an inky-black pond. Whip-smart but socially inept, the preacher’s daughter suffers crippling anxiety attacks, although back then they were dismissed as “nerves” or “hysterics”.
She falls for the son of a neighbouring doctor with the force of a felled redwood, the mere mention of his name knocking the wind out of her. The boy, John, is her polar opposite, louche and sybaritic, but equally lost. Their lives coil around each other but never touch, two strands in a double helix.
The first draft of Smoke and Summer came just a year after A Streetcar Named Desire, and a few years before Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but there’s an ethereal poetry that sets it apart from Williams’ better-known plays. Director Rebecca Frecknall homes in on this, her stage empty but for a microphone and some wooden chairs, nine pianos forming a semi-circle behind them.
These pianos are a soundscape of Alma’s mental state; they play a sad, tinkling melody as she pines for her love, rising to a crescendo during emotional encounters, and breaking down into discordant twangs as she reels from rejection or jealousy.
At the centre of it all is Patsy Ferran as Alma. She’s incredible throughout, nailing the tricky balance between awkward humour and heart-rending sadness. Nervous laughs are followed by horrified sideways glances, her repressed desire expressed through anxious ticks, her need to be loved competing with her self loathing; it’s the first performance this year to make me cry.
It’s this unflinching performance that carries the play’s enduring message over the line – that even in a cruel, unknowable world, sometimes it’s worth sticking your head above the parapet in the name of love.