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Wednesday, April 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 55.0° F  Overcast
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THEATER

In University Theatre's Summer and Smoke, a minister's daughter and a libertine doctor explore the body-soul divide

A minister's daughter is focused on the spirit, while a young doctor is more concerned with the flesh.
Credit:Brent Nicastro
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I caught the University Theatre production of Summer and Smoke (through Nov. 16) on a wintry night. A small audience occupied the center section of the UW's Mitchell Theatre, a mix of students and older folks perhaps looking to escape the cold with some Tennessee Williams.

The plot of Summer and Smoke seems likely to heat up a chilly evening. The play is set in a sultry Mississippi summer when Alma Winemiller (Chelsea Anderson), the virginal daughter of a minister, reunites with John Buchanan (Trevor Rees), the boy who grew up next door. John could be the inspiration for Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H; he's a newly minted doctor with a wild side. He begins the play more passionate for wine and women than for medicine. John puts his faith in the body, and Alma (whose name, of course, means "soul" in Spanish) believes in the spirit.

Shuxing Fan's well-designed set reflects the body-soul divide that's explored in the play. It's a split stage: Alma's home -- a rectory complete with watercolor-like stained glass windows -- fills one side. On the other sits John's home office, dominated by an anatomical chart. Between the spaces is an angel fountain with "Eternity" carved into its pedestal. The cold-looking angel is built on a track and moves upstage and downstage throughout the play, always casting her ominous gaze on the proceedings.

Written at the same time as Williams' famous A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke has been decidedly less popular over the years. In the program, dramaturge Steffen Silvis recounts a particularly triumphant 1952 production of Summer and Smoke that signaled the show "would finally be considered a worthy successor" to more popular plays like Streetcar or The Glass Menagerie. (Steffen Silvis, a graduate student in the UW's Department of Theatre and Drama, and former theater critic for Willamette Week in Portland, Ore., published a blog exploring Williams' play and previous productions.)

Unfortunately, University Theatre's production didn't convince me that Summer and Smoke belongs among Tennessee Williams' better-known plays. Instead of being deeply moving, this production, directed by Norma Saldivar, hovers above the surface of real emotion. Line after line is delivered with the cadence of a joke's punch line. It's as if the actors haven't really considered the messages they are delivering and haven't discovered that the play isn't a comedy.

That said, there are some bright spots in the production. Summer and Smoke might not be Williams' most acclaimed play, but it's a deeply personal one. He identified closely with the character of Alma. Though she first comes across as silly -- Anderson gives her a perfectly annoying little laugh -- Alma is a complex character undergoing constant change. By the end of the play, she's a completely new person.

"She died last summer," Alma says of her previous self, "suffocated in smoke from something on fire inside her." John, too, has changed dramatically by the end of Summer and Smoke. He and Alma have made a tragic switch. "I've come around to your way of thinking," he tells Alma. At the performance I saw, it was in these final moments that I saw Anderson and Rees at their best as Alma and John: more vulnerable and real.

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