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A problematic Tennessee Williams revival at Deep Dish Theater

Obscured by smoke

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Katja Hill and Eric Swenson - PHOTO BY LISA ALBERT
  • Photo by Lisa Albert
  • Katja Hill and Eric Swenson

Summer and Smoke

Deep Dish Theater
Through Sept. 19

Critics don't tend to suggest "fixing" the show they've just seen. They shouldn't, at any rate. It's too late: For better or worse, that production has been set.

But, a critic reasons, it's not too late for an analysis of a production to aid those who are making the shows that have not been staged, designed or cast. Among other things, most productions require from 1,000 to 2,000 labor hours; bigger shows require more. Several thousand dollars usually go into a production's budget.

That's a lot of time and energy for a public—and temporary—work of art.

After seeing a painstakingly produced work, we ask what we can learn from it. What lessons can we take with us as we continue in our growth as artists, audiences and humans? What effects do technical, artistic and plot choices ultimately have in the craft of theater and in the human enterprise?

Unfortunately, the main lessons from Deep Dish Theater's season opener, a production of Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke, center on what happens when supporting actors don't support while a director and actor never adequately bring a leading role into focus.

Tony Lea is a director of long standing in the region, and the leads he's chosen for this production are thoughtful. Eric Swenson convinces as John, the louche son of what seems to be the only doctor in Glorious Hill, Miss., while frequent theatergoers by now require no introduction to Katja Hill's work as an actor and director.

But this production is repeatedly sandbagged by supporting actors who experienced rudimentary difficulties during Saturday night's performance. Were the exaggerated and nearly hammy performances seen in so many supporting roles due to actors' inexperience or willfulness, or to a director's miscalculation?

Normally, I wouldn't say the latter. But Lea's work with Hill this time out results in a character whose fundamental psychological features remain too blurred. Like many of Williams' leading female characters, Alma Winemiller is sensitive, socially awkward and sexually repressed. The daughter of the small town's Episcopal minister in 1916, she's hamstrung by ideals, religion and a yearning for aesthetics at odds with the world in which she finds herself. This cat's cradle of secondhand ethics and familial duties has kept her barricaded from any sort of erotic realization or courtship with John, the literal boy next door. Now she's in her 20s, and John has returned from medical school as a profligate intent on squandering his gifts. Can she work through the ties that have always bound her to a platonic notion of love?

If it is to Lea's credit that his Alma doesn't join the endless, weightless legion of sylphs that come from central casting (that, or Edward Gorey) to inhabit this role, at evening's end we're still left wondering exactly who she is. We should get the feeling that Alma struggles in her cage of deeply conflicting emotions, beliefs and duties. She's a victim of too many "musts": She must be good, pure, higher-minded—and therefore must be lonely, untouched and never completely a woman.

But here Lea and Hill give us a woman more irritated than torn asunder. We see her character's distractions and petty annoyances (a mentally unbalanced mother, given a performance also lacking depth by Marcia Edmundson) more clearly than we see the chains that bind her—and what those chains do to Alma's skin and spirit.

Repeatedly, we look for the fire that would consume—or transform—Alma. Unfortunately, the smoke in this production obscures too much.

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