Love Songs from Summer and Smokeby Tennessee Williams
directed by Mark Astafan
New England Conservatory of MusicBoston, Massachusetts USA
Of all the characters he created, Tennessee Williams declared himself closest to Alma Winemiller, a minister’s daughter in the Mississippi Delta, in love since childhood with John Buchanan-the doctor’s son who lives next door. In a 1973 Playboy interview Williams was asked “With what characters of yours do you identify?” The reply: “Alma of Summer and Smoke is my favorite - because I came out so late and so did Alma, and she had the greatest struggle, you know? … Miss Alma grew in the shadow of the rectory and so did I. Her love was intense, but too late. Her man fell in love with someone else and Miss Alma turned into a life of profligacy.”
As was usual for Williams, a one-act play, written shortly after The Glass Menagerie, told the story first. In a crucial scene, Alma challenges what she considers John’s shallow enjoyment of the senses and John challenges Alma to find the soul within the muscles and bones on the anatomy chart hanging in his office. A Chart of Anatomy was the first title of the earliest full-length version. From Chart of Anatomy, Williams fashioned the full length Summer and Smoke in which matters between John and Alma come to a head when she consents to accompany him to a hotel, then runs off before they can make love. A sub-plot lends John a senorita-on-the side, as one-sidedly sensual as Alma is prudish. Finding a balance, he ends up marrying a good girl in town.
In Summer and Smoke, then, first produced in Dallas in 1948, Alma’s desire for John goes unrequited. “It’s something you can sing about until you’re blue in the face” said Lee Hoiby, who wrote the music for the 1971 opera libretto by Lanford Wilson. In Italy, while writing The Rose Tattoo and the novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone - - works in which women achieve sexual satisfaction on their own terms -- Williams thought more about Alma and in a new full-length play, titled The Eccentricities of a Nightingale which gave this heroine, too, the power to attain fufillment. The role of the senorita was cut, so was the good girl. The action concentrates on John and Alma. In Eccentricities, at Alma’s invitation – not John’s – John and Alma have one night of passion at a secret room above Moon Lake Casino – a night Alma declares will requite her the rest of her life. The TACT production of Eccentricities this season, directed by Jenn Thompson,with Mary Bacon as Alma was praised by the NY Times: “Ms. Thompson and Ms. Bacon understand what makes Alma affecting: her courage and refusal to be a victim.”In Summer and Smoke, John’s actions carry out Williams’ conviction that lovemaking is a way to achieve spiritual wholeness. In Eccentricities that action is Alma’s.