‘Smoke’ is breathtaking

Kristen Di Leonardo

Having never seen, read or heard anything about Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke,” I did not know what to expect when attending the showing on Feb. 10. Anything can happen on opening night. My expectations of seeing Villanova Theatre’s production of “Summer and Smoke” were well met. Although I found the storyline lacking in some areas, the performance was exceptional, passionate and stimulating.

“Summer and Smoke” tells a bittersweet story of unrequited love and change. When put in such simple terms one can understand the play’s relevance to college life. The two main characters are struggling to find their niche among the world’s vast possibilities. Alma Winemiller lives contently in a small southern town, ignorant to the pleasures yet to be tapped and tormented by a love she can not acquire. John Buchanan, Jr., much like Prince Hal in King Henry IV, ignores the constraints of society and family and intends to take all he can get from the world. Both Alma and John, through experience and circumstance, find the winds of change transforming them into the adults they have yet to become. The young men and women of Villanova University cross swords with these dilemmas at least once in their time here.

Thanks to the performers, the spirit and impact of its theme are quite evident. Superb acting made the drama come to life enabling the audience to feel the thick cloud of sexual tension. Set in early 1900s Mississippi, “Summer and Smoke” arrests the audience and forces it through the agony of unrequited love. Alma Winemiller is the minister’s daughter and acts accordingly; she has high values and scruples that are equally as precious. Alma harbors a passionate desire for her neighbor, the appealing pleasure-seeker, John Buchanan, Jr., yet she refuses to act on her urges and give into temptation. John, on the other hand, thrives on lust-driven temptation and often assumes the role of the serpent. John desires the flesh while Alma desires the soul; this rift prevents the two from ever working out. The difference between lust and love, flesh and soul remains an important distinction whenever young lovers contemplate a relationship.

Alma is not the only woman in John’s life by any means. His lust for sex, alcohol and cock-fights at the Moon Lake Casino control his existence. Untroubled by the angst he causes his father, the good Dr. Buchanan, John continues his wildly extravagant ways. But ultimately John’s profligate lifestyle brings disaster to Glorious Hill, his actions are reckless, his self-indulgent attempt to deny the town’s expectations, to take over Dr. Buchanan, Sr.’s practice, causes his father’s death. The murder brings on a realization for John, and he changes his loose ways. He settles down with a young girl and realizes the importance of the soul. Alma has changed as well. While John is finishing the work his father started, Alma moves from an innocent minister’s daughter with a longing for the soul to an unrestrained sexual being that hungers for the flesh. Unrequited love takes a turn for the worst when the star-crossed lovers each change their mentality and yet remain mismatched. “Summer and Smoke” provides in-your-face proof that confronting one’s sensual side solely to submit to sex without love is wrong. Giving up what you believe in can never be advantageous.

Under the direction of Joanna Rotte, the leading roles of Alma (Elizabeth Pool) and John (Stephen Fletcher), give emotionally charged, intense performances. Their interactions emit the obvious sexual tension between Alma and John. Pool gave a tour de force performance of an eye-roll-provoking drama queen that bordered on over-acting. Fletcher’s suave confidence and strong character brought life and charisma to John Buchanan, Jr. The supporting roles also had a profound impact on the play’s success. Seth Pendleton, playing Dr. John Buchanan, Sr., gave an exceptional performance as the admirable doctor. Pendleton very realistically and emotionally performed his character’s blunt honesty with Alma, paired with his emotional estrangement from John. Taylor Williams, in the role of Mrs. Winemiller, cannot go unmentioned. Mrs. Winemiller, the mentally-unstable, childlike mother of Alma, is comparable to the many hilarious clowns used by Shakespeare. Every time she entered the stage I prepared to laugh, as did the rest of the audience.