“Deep is the darkness that falls down on me…”
Set in the blistering heat of small town Mississippi, Summer and Smoke is a play that, on the surface, invokes endless sun-drenched days and the distant creaking of rocking chairs out on the porch, a rose tinted image of the Deep South that still resonates strongly today. And yet Rebecca Frecknall’s exquisite production of this lesser-known Tennessee Williams play takes place in the vaults of the Southwark Playhouse, its set bathed in the gloom of two tunnels that stretch on into the creeping darkness, the oppressive summer that the characters speak of taking on an eerie, almost sinister quality against the dank tunnel walls.
This setting proves a fantastic way to explore the mind sets of Summer and Smoke’s doomed lovers, minister’s daughter Alma Winemiller and the young doctor John Buchanan. The ever-encroaching darkness serves as a bitter reminder of Alma’s repression. She may spend her days bathed in sunshine, yet it becomes all too clear that Alma’s hope to break free from an upbringing as oppressive as the heat, was buried long ago. Even the distant passing of a train above the ground works to betray the thudding of Alma’s heart as John, all too aware of the body’s animal desires, takes her pulse.
Amongst a fantastic cast, Kate Lamb as the anxiety-stricken Alma is simply wonderful. She appears almost as a dancer walking on a tight rope, the picture of elegance and yet the quiver in her voice and the tremor in her laugh betray a woman teetering on the edge, as brittle and fragile as glass. While Alma’s pain spills over into a torrent of nervous energy, Curran McKay as John is still, each movement heavy, weighed down by his own anguish and frustration. For while Alma hides away in the darkness, John embraces it, openly rebelling against his strict upbringing.
During the beautifully realised exchanges between Alma and John, the rest of the cast look on mischievously, appearing as restless spirits in this haunting production. Jenna Smith in particular is the picture of naughtiness, injecting all of her roles with a wicked sense of playfulness and providing some much-needed comic relief. Moments in which the cast create a fireworks display out of matches and crinkling paper are particularly enjoyable, the child-like wonder making a poignant contrast to Alma and John, suddenly and cruelly thrown into the responsibilities and expectations of adult hood.
Designer Lorna Killin excels with a set littered with ornate period pieces and empty door frames. Constantly lingering within these door frames, Lamb not only captures Alma’s hesitancy but also her inability to escape the confines of her home. Amongst the gloom, Sophie McLelland’s lighting design conjures up shadows that twist and turn around Alma and John, a constant reminder that the darkness within them is inescapable, no matter how many candles Alma’s trembling fingers attempt to light.
Summer and Smoke is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 30 June. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website. Photo by Nicolai Kornum.