Contemplative cast in rehearsalsAlessandra Rey with permission for Varsity

Tension began to circulate from the moment the house lights went down; the audience were immediately confronted by a wild-eyed Alma (Sarah Mulgrew) whose audibly shaky breath was simply captivating. The tone was set.

Tennessee Williams’ play opens in a stifling heat, and, thanks to Evie Chandler’s subtle lighting, the audience were quickly launched into a world of warm hues. Alma’s line, ‘We were so close that we almost breathed together,’ speaks closely to Imogen Gray’s production. The transformation from the Alma of the first act, with an airy, yet restrained vocal quality, flitting with hysterical nervousness, to a more grounded and dignified style of speech towards the end was spellbinding. The production delicately opened itself up as Alma’s initial light sense of airiness dissipated. Instead, this air diffused into the world around her; the cooler palette of lighting was effective in marking a sense of expansion away from the claustrophobic upstage heat.

“The well-timed comic relief offered [...] moments of fresh air amongst the cigarette smoke”

The dynamics of John’s (Ollie Flowers) relationships were particularly engaging. His ability to build and release tension, moving rapidly between displays of tenderness and passion, was commendable. Flowers showed us a very different side to masculinity than that of Reverend Winemiller (Jacob Benhayoun) whose explosive anger sat poignantly against restrained portrayals of female rage by his wife and daughter (Tabitha Tucker and Mulgrew, respectively). Yet female agency was also explored, notably through the dilemma of one of John’s other love interests, Rosa (Gwynneth Horbury)as she tackles her feelings for the complex man.

Although the somewhat outdated script does not offer the play’s Mexican characters much opportunity to speak, Horbury convincingly came into her own in a compelling monologue. Meanwhile, the well-timed comic relief offered by Nellie (Louisa Grinyer) and Mrs Bassett (Betty Blythe) became a deserved moment of fresh air amongst the cigarette smoke billowing through the background of the first act.

“The end was spell-binding”

This titular smoke was just one part of the aesthetic feast on offer; the tech for this show was incredibly cohesive. The warm palette of Martha Shaylor’s costumes delicately complemented the browns of the wooden set designed by Tabitha Tucker, while the gap between the back of the scene and the exposed back wall of the ADC was utilised to full effect with characters walking across stage between the houses of the two love interests.

Kate Caspari’s sound was equally immersive, establishing the hubbub of an audience or the gentle background music of a moment of romance. The music really came into its own when underscoring Eoin McCaul’s movement sequence - yet I feel I would have liked to have seen the use of music taken further, perhaps to cover some of the more lengthy scene changes.

"Portrayed unstable modes of breathing with a serene sense of dignity”

It is also worth mentioning that despite my fears surrounding the difficulty of mastering the idiosyncratic Southern drawl of Williams’ play, the cast’s accents were almost never distracting from the gentle rhythm of the production. The few occasions where the pacing lost its momentum were quickly picked back up by the rawness of Mulgrew’s performance.


Mountain View

Few Grey Skies in Four Seasons of Tyler Branch

The play navigated the trope of the hysterical woman with a level of poised confidence seen also in the believable chemistry between Alma and John. With Mulgrew sitting on the edge of the stage in the closing scene just as she had in the opening, this time with a new man, Gray created a cyclic sense of inevitability. The Alma at the end of the play may have been more self-assured, but when presented with a new suitor, her laughter reverted to the light hysteria of the very beginning. Gray’s production of Summer and Smoke portrayed these unstable modes of breathing with a serene sense of dignity fully realised by the complex and compelling characters of Williams’ underrated play.

Summer and Smoke is showing at the ADC from the 17th to 21st October at 7:30pm.