By Tennessee Williams
Direted by Ryan Martin
At the Den Theatre, Chicago
Ask for Everything but Be Prepared to Get Nothing
Summer & Smoke actually started out as a Tennessee Williams short story by the name of “Oriflamme.” He then fleshed it out into The Yellow Bird before starting a play titled The Chart of Anatomy, which ultimately became the piece we stage today. All stories deal with the same core issue, which is the body/spirit dichotomy, and fulfillment of each side. More than anything, it’s a morality tale, giving us a flawed, physical manifestation of each side of the dichotomy before a synthesis, of sorts.
But just because Williams wants to impart us with a (somewhat surprisingly religiously conservative) moral doesn’t mean he allows the story to suffer. It’s compelling theatre. Alma Winemiller (Eve Rydberg) is the daughter of Rev. Winemiller (Ron Wells) and Mr.s Winemiller (Judy Lea Steele), who’s had a breakdown and is now a “cross to bear” for the family. She is, perhaps, the result of a woman seeking both spiritual and physical love but only being allowed the former. Alma is hopelessly in love with her neighbor’s son, both of whom are named Dr. John Buchanan (Jr. and Sr. – played by Josh Odor and Norm Woodel, respectively); however, the young doctor is quite the libertine, and so Alma cannot, her being who she is and he being who he is, openly seek to court him. He, likewise, fancies her, but also spends his nights with Rosa Gonzales (Cheyenne Pinson), whose father owns the casino down the way.
Alma is almost wholly focused on the fulfillment of the soul; while John is focused purely on the fulfillment of the body. They both try to convince the other of the merits of their way of thinking; but as I said, they are both flawed manifestations of even their points of view: Alma gets a proposal, but turns it down because she cannot see herself, physically, with the man. John takes pleasure in the corporeal, but also enjoys helping people. And because it is Tennessee Williams, everyone speaks beautifully – even when they cannot speak correctly.
The Den brings this seldom-seen play to life admirably. Rydberg and Odor are fantastic leading players, and everyone else on stage is also very strong. The sets and costumes are well done, the lighting good – the production quality as sturdy as one could ask. They clearly have a budget, and they clearly have the imagination to use that budget to the best of their ability. The folks at The Den also know how theatre should be watched – with one or two drinks in you: there’s a bar with snacks, coffee, beer, and wine. After all, going to a play sober is like having sex with a condom: it’s a close facsimile to the other act, but it’s still a pale representation. (Which is not to say, of course, that one shouldn’t go to a play if sober, etc.) It’s a nice space, with nice people helping you, and some great theatre to boot.
Reviewed on 9.16.11
For full show information, visit TheatreinChicago.
At The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL; call 773-398-7028 or visit www.thedentheatre.com; tickets $15-20; performances Thurs.-Sat. 8pm, Sun. 3pm; running time 2 hours 15 minutes with intermission; through Oct. 29.