“…now I have changed my mind, or the girl who said ‘no’, — she doesn’t exist anymore, she died last summer — suffocated in smoke from something on fire inside her.”
– Alma to Dr. Buchanan
Poor Alma Winemiller. She is the epitome of what a proper Southern woman, with beautiful looks and a charming disposition should aspire to become. Then, there is the Southern belle way on keeping what she feels locked up deep inside. Set in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, she has just returned from a church performance she believes she was horrible in. Along with her preacher father, the Reverend Winemiller (Jeffrey Markle), a loony out-of-touch mother (wonderfully played by the amusing Deborah Marlowe) and her unrequited love and childhood friend Dr. John Buchanan, Jr. (Gregory James). She’s a nervous woman with a rapid-fire speech that goes on endlessly. She can talk forever about everything and nothing and makes it interesting and entertaining to hear.
Dr. John Jr. is completely opposite of Alma. He is the residential bad boy who lives life on his own terms. There is a subtle sense that Alma admires that part of John’s spirit even though she publicly shuns it. After one of their many intimate conversations, the handsome doctor admits that he has always liked Alma. She’s speechless for once, and moves the conversation to another topic. One of these issues is the Mexican girl Rosa Gonzales (Fernanda Rohd). She is sensuous, beautiful and for the moment, has captured John’s full attention. To shift the focus back on to her, Alma tells John she believes she has a touch of malaria.
Clearly, Alma’s hypochondriac ways is how she grabs John’s attention. And it works. He temporarily leaves Rosa alone to tend to the “ill” Alma.
While John gets his fill for the flavor of the month with Rosa, Alma is concerned of remaining a spinster for the rest of her life. Her one and only proposal comes from the ill-suited Roger Doremus (Brian Habicht). Alma doesn’t have many options and
Roger is looking pretty decent. She doesn’t love him but he’s respectable. John’s father, John Buchanan Sr. (Townsend Coleman) doesn’t take too kindly to his son’s carousing and other bad habits. The often argue about John Jr. changing his ways and becoming more respectable. Alma would be the ideal fit in this scenario. There is one tender scene in particular that gives hope to the doomed couple. John Jr. takes Alma to the Moonlight Casino. They sit very close together. He caresses her cheek and thigh and immediately she slaps his hands away. They both express the confining roles women have to play in romance. Alma has to be proper but John is free to move wherever and with whomever he chooses. The problem of letting go is what stops this couple from moving forward or going back.
Battani and James do a wonderful job as the ill-fated Alma and John. Battani is especially good in adding layers of complexity to her character who simply wants to be free from the downtrodden rules that society places on women at the turn of the century. James is excellent as the free spirit who captured Alma’s heart and body. His freedom is very inviting but also restrictive to the opposite sex. Together they make the perfect, mismatched couple. They are never mean to each other but instead developed a high level of respect and kindness that lasts even though the romance doesn’t. Melody Hollis as Nellie Ewell brings forth the comic relief that adds to the play’s charm. She’s a sweet, articulate and optimistic young woman whose tender nature makes her instantly likable. It’s clear to see why Dr. John Jr. finds her attractive and pursues more than a friendship.
Though not as popular as Williams’ other recognizable plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or The Glass Menagerie, it still carries and maintain Williams familiar characters of wounded people trying to do right and get by until the next day. And that is always a great thing.
Summer and Smoke plays at the David Schall Theatre on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and ends on Sunday 17th at 2:30 p.m. located at 1760 N. Gower St. (on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood) in Hollywood. For ticket reservations, call (323) 462-8460 or visit www.ActorsCo-op.org.