Violet Sky Theatre is a new company in the Chicago cultural landscape and it was a delight to attend their production of Summer and Smoke, directed by Eden Blattner. I have long been a fan of Tennessee Williams, particularly for his deep and multi-faceted female characters. Themes of fragility and duality are the touchpoints of characters such as Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire, Alexandra Del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth, and Alma Winemiller in Summer and Smoke. This play is a story of awakening, loss, deep grief and the denial of all three. Alma Winemiller (Lindsey Zanatta) lives submerged under the weight of propriety and morality, of being a minister’s daughter. Reverend Winemiller (Chuck Munro) is pleased with his timid and frail daughter giving singing lessons and holding an intellectual circle at the rectory with people that meet his approval. In turn, he is appalled at the mental illness of Mrs. Winemiller (Debra Rodkin) who has no filters and is prone to shouting embarrassing phrases, shoplifting, and brazenly licking an ice cream cone in public. Rodkin brilliantly pulls off the erratic behavior that put the first Mrs. Rochester in the attic in Jane Eyre.
Alma was played by the great Geraldine Page in the 1961 film; Page also acted in many stage adaptations in the Tennessee Williams canon. Zanatta is a revelation as Alma in a delicately balanced performance. She projects vulnerability, desperate forbidden passion, and yearning for young Dr. John Buchanan (Joshua J. Volkers). Alma has known John her whole life—living next door to his family and as a frequent patient of the elder Dr. Buchanan (Mike Rogalski). Volkers is a heatwave unto himself, and that heat is intensified in the scenes between him and Zanatta. He embodies the wastrel who drinks too much and denies having a soul. Everything is anatomy to him—especially the sensual pleasures he indulges in with Rosa Gonzales (Selena Lopez) at the Moon Lake Casino
The character of Rosa is mostly seen slinking by John while Alma watches with fascination and envy. Lopez doesn’t really give off the sense of having a sexual hold on John. He tells her to dance for him and it was rather lackluster. Perhaps the music should have been more pronounced and Lopez could have put more movement into the dance. Her character comes alive when Rosa recalls her childhood in a one-room shack with a dirt floor. The description of Rosa’s desperately poor childhood and desire for respectability by marrying a doctor is remarkable. Lopez put some juice into that speech and the rage is palpable.
Tennessee Williams’ work is often referred to as Southern Gothic. It recalls a specific time in the American South with family secrets and eccentric people striving to keep a veneer of gentility like the antebellum era. Alma’s intellectual circle puts some quirks on display, and gives some comic relief. Reid O’Connell is spot on as Alma’s frequent and chaste escort, Roger Doremus. Hanna Beth Mitchell is hilarious as the busybody Mrs. Bassett. Mitchell has some of the best catty lines. Sasha Rechler is funny as Rosemary trying to read a racy William Blake poem at the gathering. One character that may have raised some eyebrows back in the day is Nellie Ewell played with youthful glee by Jill Shoemaker. Shoemaker bounds into the Winemiller parlor squealing about her new crush—young Dr. Buchanan. The zinger is that Nellie confesses to having had a crush on Alma. Williams was a master at turning sexual mores upside down. The stage plays were franker and the film versions skim over any homoerotic elements.
Eden Blattner directs this production with a skilled hand. I have seen some Tennessee Williams go Grand Guignol with emoting that belon,gs in a silent film. The beats of this production, especially with the dense dialog, are on point. The angel overlooking Glorious Hill town square is dramatic. The scenic design by Kevin Rolfs was cool and era appropriate. The scene changing was always smooth from the town square to interiors and felt like an early 20th century Southern town. Kudos to the costume coordinators. Kristina Newcomb and Katy Blaustein. The attire was elegant, beautifully tailored, and also hilarious with Roger Doremus dressed like a mama’s boy in high-water pants and an uncomfortable tucked white shirt.
This is an excellent production right out of the gate for Violet Sky Theatre company. Summer and Smoke runs through July 31 at the Reginald Vaughn Theater, 1106 W. Thorndale. The show runs for 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 10-minute intermission. Tickets are $27; buy them at www.violetskytheatre.com. Covid protocols require a mask be worn throughout the performance. Be a true supporter of the arts by protecting the actors, the audience and yourself. Mask up!
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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