Near to the start of Summer and Smoke, Alma speaks straight out to the audience, with a Southern accent that’s remarkably languid and composed. She’s saying her half of a conversation into a microphone, while the boy she’s talking to, that her life for the entire span of the play centres around, is slightly to one side, slightly out of things. It’s a moment that says so much about Rebecca Frecknall’s production. It captures the self-absorption of obsession. It shows that, here, we’re seeing everything through Alma’s eyes. And that we’re in her head, a bit, looking back on a crush that was already shaping her life as a ten-year-old, ready to offer tissues to a boy in her class with a runny nose and a face she couldn’t stop staring at. Alma’s cool and composed in this early scene, but compared to her later awkwardness it becomes clear that this is a memory, a smooth pebble, polished over years into something shining and flawless.
Tennessee Williams described Glass Menagerie as a ‘memory play’. Summer and Smoke has some of the same qualities, especially in Frecknall’s staging, which introduces a quality of tender artifice, ringing Alma with a semi-circle of pianos that recreate the painful high and low notes of distant summers. I haven’t always got on with Glass Menagerie – Tennessee Williams’ presence as semi-narrator makes its two central women, based on his real-life mother and sister, more pitiable, somehow, exposes their eccentricities more mercilessly. But where Laura’s pain is compounded as her brother displays it, showman-like, to the audience, what rescues this production from the same fate is that we’re looking back on painful romantic incidents through Alma’s own eyes.
Patsy Ferran is the perfect person to embody Alma, her mix of nervous failures and sudden, inspiring evocations of beauty. Her face tracks every emotion that wracks her body, and all the physical intensity of feeling she tries, in vain, to sublimate into reaching heavenwards like a gothic cathedral: “the vaulted ceiling and the delicate spires – all reaching up to something beyond attainment!” John, the object of her obsession, and a doctor-in-training, classes her as a hysterical women, and tells her her problems stem from her swallowing too much air when she gets nervous. To modern eyes, she seems like she has an anxiety disorder – social anxiety, tinged with hypochondria that makes her announce she has a ‘touch of malaria’. And I wonder how it is that Tennessee Williams was able to talk about and depict types of mental illness with a sensitivity that centuries-worth of plays before (and often after) him couldn’t touch.
The symptoms of anxiety, seen from the outside, are easily played for hilarity – like Leo Bloom in The Producers, trying to soothe himself with his childhood blue blankie. Seen from the inside, they’re horrendous. Panic attacks are sometimes mistaken for heart attacks – and in women, tellingly, the reverse is also true. In Tom Scutt’s design for Summer and Smoke, Alma is placed in a space that feels like a curved, dusty arena, or concert venue, pulling the focus on the epic scale of her emotions. Angus MacRae’s score uses the insistent power of a single, repeated note, like a heartbeat, that’s overlaid with sudden chords that evoke the overwhelming physical and emotional symptoms of her distress.
An obituary for Tennessee Williams’ sister, Rose, the unlucky model for The Glass Menagerie’s Laura, has her telling him “You must never make fun of insanity… It’s worse than death.” Patsy Ferran’s performance is almost impossible to laugh at. But where Alma is depicted with a sensitivity that’s heightened by Frecknall’s production, her mother is still ridiculous. She’s reduced to nothing more than a cackling, childish pile of desires: for ice cream, mostly, but also for a new hat. Oh, and she can’t resist the temptation to bring her daughter down a whole cloakroom full of pegs.
Ophelia’s ‘mad’ scene in Hamlet has long been one of my least favourite bits of all Shakespeare, just because it feels so pretty, so unreal. All herbs and bawdy folk songs, a display of picturesque disorder that fails to take an interest in Ophelia’s own subjectivity, that leaves the reasons for her madness as a puzzle with not nearly enough pieces to be solvable. The character of Alma’s mother is similarly underdrawn, an embarrassment who’s there to act as an obstacle to her happiness – and, maybe, to act as a warning of what she could become.
What Summer and Smoke ultimately shows is how mankind interprets behaviour that deviates from the norm through the ideological frameworks of each era. Tennessee Williams came to believe that his sister Rose’s mental illness was caused by the sexual repression in their upbringing, and her lifelong virginity – a Freudian interpretation of the kind that saturates mid-century thought. And which also defines the dualities that pattern through Summer and Smoke, the divides between body (John) and soul (Alma).
The structure of the play is neat, almost frustratingly so. John moves away from sensualism, towards living an upright life – and selecting the socially-sanctioned release of a young wife. Alma realises that her self-imposed sexual repression is harming her, and offers himself to him, only to be humiliatingly rebuffed. (I can’t but think of another line from that Tennessee Williams obituary: “Rose, I heard you offer yourself to Colin, and I want you to know that you disgusted me.”)
That the play manages to shine out over this outdated framework is a tribute to the way that Alma’s written – and, it’s not exactly a reach to suggest, drawn from the painful experiences of both Tennessee and Rose Williams. She’s a real person trapped in a story that pins her with cruel, precise accuracy. Her attempts at a literary circle (with a group of misfits with creative ambitions that aren’t played for straightforward laughs, as they easily could be). Her need to sing, even though it terrifies her. Her reaching out into a world that punishes her for being brave, for assuming ‘airs’ and striving for something more.
This production, and Patsy Ferran’s performance, doesn’t make Alma pitiable. It makes her an unlikely heroine, carrying a banner for female oddness – and only the quiet cruelty of its story’s ending condemns her to the same loneliness and obscurity that typically befalls the woman who’s not prepared to sit, soberly, unrebelliously, and wait.
Summer Smoke is on at Almeida Theatre until 7th April. Book tickets here.