In many ways, director Rebecca Frecknall’s retelling of Summer and Smoke, which recently ended its west end run at the Duke of York’s Theatre, was masterful. Frecknall took a rarely staged work by Tennessee Williams and created a beautiful, compelling, and piece of feminist theatre.
Summer and Smoke stages a love story of between Alma, an obedient and duty-bound preacher’s daughter, and John, a lonely, self-destructive young doctor. It starts as a classic good-girl meets bad-boy tale. John drinks, gambles and seduces women while Alma sings in church and takes care of her mother, while gazing out of the window pining for John’s affection. As the play progresses John’s mistakes catch up with him, and in the second half we witness a gradual reversal of roles: John repents and finds God just as Alma loses her piety and makes a life for herself which is driven by her own curiosity and desire. Where once they were separated by Alma’s disapproval of John’s sin, the play ends with the pair unable to be together because of John’s refusal to see Alma as anything other than a saint – as desireless stone angel under which they first met.
Clearly, there is scope for this play to be staged as the story of a fallen women. Frecknall’s achievement in her recent production, was to make it the opposite. Patsy Ferran’s performance of Alma in Summer and Smoke was one of overcoming and empowerment, as she portrayed Alma as releasing herself from the impossible demands of her father and would-be lover, and escaping the duty to be angelic in order to be human.
Two illness narratives run through Summer and Smoke. Alma herself suffers from nervousness and palpitations and goes to John’s father for ‘calming draughts’. At the point when she believes she has lost John forever, she collapses and retreats from the world, in what initially seems to be a breakdown but which she comes to understand as a kind of chrysalis stage, from which she emerges as herself.
Patsy Ferrans’ interpretation of this role highlighted Alma’s ‘ill’ qualities. The play began with a monologue in which she trembled and struggled to speak, choking on her words. Her performance of anxious hysteria was deeply embodied, characterised by tenseness, skittishness and constant movement. Nevertheless, it was also subtle enough to give the audience cause to doubt her doctor’s interpretation of her condition as one of nervousness and a weak heart. Rather, Ferran presented an Alma who struggled to contain feelings and desires which her small community deemed unacceptable. This excess of feeling seemed to make itself know through her body, which was always on the edge of betraying her.
It is also through this nuanced portrayal of Alma’s dubiously pathological anxiety that Ferran was able to turn the narrative from one of fall to one of triumph. After her period of grief and hibernation, Ferran’s Alma visibly relaxed. Her speech became less pressured, her movements slower and more assured. Plotting a physical narrative of recovery over the playtext’s narrative of social refusal highlighted the extent to which this refusal was a form of overcoming, and pointed to the impossible social pressures that Alma had been carrying at the start of the play.
Alma’s journey out of nervousness also created a parallel to another illness narrative in the work, forms a kind of shadow to Alma’s story. At the start of the play, Alma tells John of her ‘burden’, her mad mother who does whatever she pleases: smoking, dancing, eating icecream and speaking her mind. Nancy Crane played Mrs Winemiller almost in the model of a young adolescent – impetuous and stroppy she clearly didn’t give a damn about the effect of her behaviour on her family.
Whilst not really taking part in the plot, Mrs Winemiller became her daughter’s double. Whilst Alma flies out of pathology and into a (possibly socially untenable) rejection of responsibility, her mother seems to have retreated into madness for precisely the same aims. In fact, it is difficult to see whether Mrs Winemiller’s pathology consists of anything other than simply not caring. Through the parallel ‘illnesses’ of both mother and daughter we are presented with a double bind in a highly patriarchal society, which pathologises both the dutiful and the duty-less.
The production also got me thinking about other ‘mad’ mothers in writing of this period. Mrs Winemiller certainly finds her parallel in Eugene O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, whose addiction and profound unhappiness haunts the lives of her husband and sons. I’m still unsure about what to make of these older ‘mad’ mother figures which form the background of plays written by ‘great men’. Are they a warning, from a time which pathologised any rejection of traditional female roles? Are they an uncomfortable metaphor for broken family values in situations of extreme financial and domestic hardship? Are we meant to believe that Mrs Winemiller is what Alma is destined to become?
By clearly structuring her production around her heroine, and largely re-telling Summer and Smoke from Alma’s point of view, Frecknall created a piece of theatre that highlighted the experience of her female characters. Within this production, she also left the character of Alma’s mother somewhat unresolved. This irresolution might teach us to look a little more carefully at the characters which make up the ‘background’ of a work. What assumptions are made about motherhood, about older women, and about illness when these are all consistently relegated to the ensemble? Is there a way they could be made to signify differently, rather than doubling the concerns of the heroine?