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Why Jack Cummings III took a minimalist approach to the Tennessee Williams classic
At first Classic Stage Company's revival of Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke looks a little curious. Pent-up Mississippi maid Alma (played by Tony nominee Marin Ireland) talks about her handkerchief, but her fingers are empty. Her lifelong crush, bad boy Dr. John Buchanan, Jr. (played by TV regular Nathan Darrow), mimes closing a window that isn't there. At other points characters hold imaginary telephones and hats. But there's a reason director Jack Cummings III eschewed almost all props for this production: He wanted to keep the focus on the language and the performances in this steamy, turn-of-the-20th-century-set melodrama.
"It was my particular ideology coming in," says Cummings, whose theatre company Transport Group serves as co-producer. "Most actors I know actually like props. They can fill time and give you a naturalistic activity. But luckily Marin and Nathan were very game to give it a try. There's a hat Alma and her mother fight over and I was considering having it onstage, but Marin beat me to the punch saying, 'I don't think we need this.' The only props in the show are a gun -- because when you mime a gun it's kind of comical and that's a hugely dramatic moment -- a roll of money and Alma's pills."
The set by Dane Laffrey (who just snagged his first Tony nomination for his work on Once on This Island) is also minimalist, a cool white box with two pictures placed diagonally across from one another: John's anatomy chart and a photo representing Alma's favorite statue, an angel named Eternity. These two symbols encapsulate their contradictory philosophies. He's a man of science; she's a spiritual creature -- as she keeps reminding him, Alma means soul in Spanish. And yet they do what opposites usually do: attract.
This is the first time the 17-year-old Transport Group has collaborated with another theatre company. Cummings suspected it would be a good fit because he and Classic Stage Company artistic director John Doyle have complementary styles. "We realized we share similar aesthetics to a degree and similar values, and yet we do some things that are different," Cummings says. "That's one of the most important things for a partnership: that you do things that the other doesn't. Classic Stage had a history of doing European classics, but nothing from the American canon. John said, since Transport does American classics, why don't we partner up?"
Doyle is the one who suggested Summer and Smoke since it's a rarely done Williams play. It debuted after the playwright's much more successful The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, and it's only been on Broadway twice: in 1948 and 1996. Its most iconic production, starring Geraldine Page at Circle in the Square in 1952, helped birth Off-Broadway. So it seemed like a natural choice for two downtown theatre companies known for taking unconventional approaches to neglected classics.
They called in Ireland for a staged reading and knew immediately that she was their Alma. Darrow went through a traditional casting process, but at the callbacks the chemistry seemed to be there. "That's a very hard thing to audition," admits Cummings. "You just have to try and pair people up and do a little bit of due diligence and, hopefully, your guess ends up being a good one."
Transport Group had never tackled a Williams play before, and Cummings is glad he started with one he only knew from having read the script. "I've never seen a production," he says. "I've never even seen the movie! Just a clip or two on YouTube." That may be why he was able to see the script as being as much about John's harrowing emotional journey as Alma's. "I knew it was important to me for his story to be as equal as possible to hers." he says. "Even though people feel it's more of her play, it's really the story of two people's heartbreak."
To read about a student's experience at Summer and Smoke, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Summer and Smoke. Go here to browse our current offers.
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Marin Ireland and Nathan Darrow in Summer and Smoke. Photos by Carol Rosegg.