Hollywood’s increasingly risk-taking Christian-based Actors Co-op takes a walk on the wild(er) side with its terrifically acted revival of Tennessee Williams’ Summer And Smoke, one that provides a surprising number of laughs along the way to the dramatic second act you might expect from the man who heated things up with A Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly Last Summer.
Standing in for the playwright back in 1948 (when Broadway wasn’t yet ready for a sexually repressed gay man harboring a not-so-secret longing for the smolderingly hot neighbor boy) is prim-and-proper Alma Winemiller (Tara Battani), the affected, socially awkward 30ish daughter of an overbearing Mississippi preacher man (Jeffrey Markle) circa 1915 and his nutcase of a wife (Deborah Marlowe), a Southern belle who’s spent years eyeing young Dr. John Buchanan, Jr. (Gregory James) from her bedroom window while harboring impossible fantasies of their two souls united as one.
Meanwhile next door, it’s body and not soul that keeps frisky Doctor John busy with Rosa Gonzales (Fernanda Rohd), the Mexican spitfire whose father (Marco Antonio Garcia) owns the Moon Lake Casino on the shady side of town.
Over the course of one long hot summer (and the winter that follows), Summer And Smoke charts the cat-and-mouse game played by a woman who may not recognize her own desires and a man who may be more than just his physical needs.
Also figuring prominently in Summer And Smoke are John’s town physician father Dr. Buchanan Sr. (Townsend Coleman), Alma’s pretty but tone-deaf voice student Nellie Ewell (Melody Hollis), and Alma’s lumpy Sunday School teacher beau Roger Doremus (Brian Habicht), whose very touch the preacher’s daughter can barely stomach, not that there’s much touching going on between them.
Audiences unfamiliar with Tennessee Williams’ more playful side may be surprised at how many laughs Summer And Smoke provides pre-intermission under Thom Babbes’ savvy direction.
Alma is more than a bit of a pill with her incessant chatter and “long a” (e.g “lahst” instead of last, “chahnce” instead of chance), and with Co-op favorite Battani bringing her to multifaceted life, expect to be taken off guard when you least expect it. (When Alma calls Nellie an “imp,” it’s clear that what she’s actually saying is “bitch.”) The awkwardness she displays around John (who knows exactly which of Alma’s buttons to push) earns more than a few chuckles. Marlowe’s Mrs. Winemuller can throw a mean tantrum, lick an ice-cream cone with bratty glee, and show off her bloomers with the nuttiest of them. And Alma’s well-meaning but talentless “literary circle” (Habicht, Keri Tombazian as Mrs. Bassett, Markus Jorgensen as Vernon, and Ann Marie Wilding as Rosemary) are each and every one a hoot.
Still, director Babbes and his topnotch company of actors never let us forget that beneath social ineptitude and inappropriate behavior lie real, living, suffering human beings, particularly as days get shorter, summer turns to winter, and comedy darkens into drama.
Battani aces what may be the most challenging role of her Actors Co-op career opposite a dreamy James in his biggest Co-op assignment to date, the duo generating enough sparks to provide both summer fire and winter smoke.
Supporting performances are all-around splendid, with a special tip of the feathered hat to the divine Marlowe, who has never been more spectacular than she is as Alma’s trapped-in-her-second-childhood mom. (Newcomer Jorgensen is a stand-out too in a trio of cameo roles.)
Rich Rose’s scenic design honors Williams’ stated wishes to striking effect with its “great expanse of sky,” “walls … just barely suggested,” and elevated stone angel “form[ing] a harmonious whole,” a visual enhanced by Jason Peter Kennedy’s spot-on period props, Bill E. Kickbush’s exquisite lighting design, Vicki Conrad’s gorgeous 1915-16 costumes, and Kris Fehervari’s period-appropriate hair design. Cameron Combe’s first-rate sound design mixes authentic effects with Cooper Babbes’ moody, bluesy original music.
Summer And Smoke is produced by Lauren Thompson. Lyndsay Lucas is stage manager. Emily Combe is assistant stage manager.
Like Pride And Prejudice, Ah, Wilderness!, and The Matchmaker before it, Summer And Smoke once again confirms Actors Co-op’s gift for period classics. This time round, they do Tennessee Williams proud.
Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood.
March 4, 2106
Photos: Lindsay Schnebly