The Canadian Act II

For my first post here at The American Scene I reviewed the opening of the Stratford Festival, their flagship production of King Lear. We’re back from our second trip to Stratford for the season (we’ll head back up to the promised land in August for a third go) and saw five shows – A Comedy of Errors, My One and Only (a Gershwin musical), The Merchant of Venice, Othello and a new play, Shakespeare’s Will – plus we stopped in at the Shaw Festival for a production of Summer and Smoke, by Tennessee Williams.

I won’t be quite so verbose in my reviews of most of these as I was in my review of Lear. Indeed, I’m going to be rather terse with some of them, as I want to get stuff written while it’s reasonably fresh in my mind . . . and I’m blogging this from the Emirates lounge at Kennedy Airport on my way to London on business.

So: Summer and Smoke.

Let me begin by saying that I am not a big Tennessee Williams fan. Stratford did a production of The Glass Menagerie last year that was very good, although I thought the take on Laura narrowed the play; they did a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that was reputedly awful; and they did a production of Orpheus Descending within recent memory that, notwithstanding a marvelous cast, a great set, and fine direction, only showcased what an awful, purple mess Williams had produced.

Summer and Smoke is a particularly schematic piece, and the Shaw Festival had never done a Williams play before, so I was particularly apprehensive about seeing this production. And yet, this production moved me, moved me to tears at one point, and I’ve tried to figure out why.

Part of the answer is in the performances. Jeff Meadows and Nicole Underhay do a marvelous job as the two leads, John Buchanan and Alma Winemiller. Meadows projects an authentic air of romantic danger, but a cultivated air – this isn’t a dangerous man, but a man who wants to be seen as dangerous – and Underhay, similarly, lets us feel the banked fires that John feels in Alma. That is to say: the tragically failed love story works because we believe in these people as people, and not merely as the allegory of body and soul that Williams seems to want to make them into (and does turn them into in the second worst scene in the play, a laughably implausible argument the two leads have about the nature of love while they await the death of John Buchanan Sr., a death both are arguably guilty of triggering).

That realization – that the reason this production worked for me is that I believed in the reality of the people in it – led me to understand better what I don’t like about Williams, and productions of Williams, generally. And that is: that you need the real before you can have the surreal. Peter Hutt and Sherry Flett are fabulously surreal as, respectively, Alma’s spiritually constipated preacher father and her mad, bad, sad child of a mother. But the gothic never becomes camp with them because they are grounded in Alma, who is real; we believe in her, and so believe in them. (By contrast, we do not believe in Rosa Gonzales, John’s lover, or her pistol-packing father, because their natures shed no true light whatever on John’s character, and so their intrusion is pure camp, and is the worst moment of the play – and probably an unsalvageable one; the writing for the two of them is so atrocious I’m not sure there’s anything for a director to do.) Productions of Williams that I do not particularly like – and I include in this category the famous Brando film of Streetcar – take Williams’ notions to seriously and his characters not seriously enough, and so they are crushed by the creaking machinery of the allegory even when that machinery is considerably less creaky than it is in Summer and Smoke.

But there’s another aspect to it. So far as I could tell, this was the first Williams play I’ve seen that did not require a gay subtext to make it work. Tom’s motivation in Menagerie is obscure if you take his word that all he’s doing at night is going to the movies; Brick’s motivation is well-nigh incomprehensible in the Paul Newman film of Cat precisely because they re-write the text to drive the gay subtext so far underground it can no longer be smelled out by a Hollywood audience. You can do a gay reading of Summer and Smoke of course – in that case, John’s accommodation with life on "reasonable terms" is an allegory of a return to the closet – but the gay reading in this case is actually weaker than a straight reading for two reasons: first because Alma, unlike Blanche, seems like a real woman, not a man in drag; and, more important, because if John is straight then his accommodation is plausible, and he will be happy – happy enough anyhow – in his life with Nellie, while if he is returning to the closet then his accommodation is a terrible lie – not just a compromise, a settling, but a lie. And it doesn’t feel like a lie.

Anyhow, I hate to say it, but I guess a play that doesn’t require a gay reading to fully unfold itself speaks more strongly to me than one that does, and I do think that’s part of what I liked about this production. That might speak to my own limitations or to Williams’ limitations or to both, but better for both of us to be honest.

One final word about the production. The director made the interesting choice to have the entire cast on stage at the end of the play when Alma is at the train station waiting for a travelling salesman to pass through, waiting to begin her new, wanton life. And they sit there, motionless, watching her out of the corners of their eyes but not moving their heads or acknowledging her presence in any way, the entire seen – and she does not seem to know they are there, nor does the salesman when he arrives. I very much liked this choice, which I think was intended to play up the social ostracism that is the price of Alma’s decision to pursue a career as a wanton. It plays it up because the silent presence of the town is more lonely and more disapproving than a lone stage – you know they see, and yet they will not show that they see, that they see her, much less what she’s up to. And yet we know they see, and she must know. And to be seen and not seen in this way is lonely indeed. We need that reminder of social context, at the end, again to give dignity to Alma’s character – to make it clear why this was not an easy path to choose, will never be easy; may not be as evil as the town thinks but has real costs. She can shed her social obligations but she cannot shed her social context – that’s what the staging said to me, and it added a dimension to the play that I think was vitally necessary, and would not be apparent were she sitting on an empty stage.

Reviews of the Stratford productions to follow – from London, if I have the time, upon my return if no.