The Emotional Roller Coaster of Summer and Smoke

At the first read of Summer and Smoke, Mary-Ellen told an incredibly powerful story about how she first discovered the play several years ago at the Shaw Festival. In my interview with Mary-Ellen about three weeks before opening night, I asked her to re-tell the story so I could relay it to Sound + Noise readers.

“I knew other Tennessee Williams plays, like The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, those ones, but I hadn’t heard of Summer and Smoke until I saw it performed at the Shaw Festival… what really got me was the emotional intensity of the play and of that production. … The play takes you on an incredible emotional roller coaster if you allow yourself to go on that journey with those characters, it’s an incredible emotional whirlwind you’re caught up in and the desire for both John and Alma to be happy. When the lights came up on the audience and the last of the clapping had stopped, I was devastated. I was completely, viscerally overcome; it was like someone had struck me in the solar plexus. You know that feeling when you can’t catch your breath?… The house lights had come up, the audience was leaving, and I could not stand up, I had no power in my legs. My daughter, who was only just slightly in a better condition than I … managed to get me out of the theatre and find me a quiet bench to sit down on and collect myself.”

Once Summer and Smoke had been approved as part of the 2012/2013 “Retrospective” season by Sarah Van Tassel, Walterdale’s Artistic Director, Mary-Ellen started choosing her production team, including her daughter Rhiannon Perley-Waugh as the Assistant Director, who is in the final stages of her drama degree at the University of Alberta. I asked if one of the reasons she chose Rhiannon was because of their shared experience of the play at the Shaw Festival.

“I think so, yes. We had both had the same passion about the play, we were on the same page in terms of concept for the play, and I didn’t have to talk her through a concept. I didn’t have to talk my production crew through the concept either. When we had our first production meeting… I was saying, ‘This is the way I see the play. This is the underpinning of my concept of the play – minimalist, suggestive realism. I want the play to focus on the characters and the relationships, which are so important. I want to make sure the lyricism of Tennessee William’s words are given full value,’ and they were all nodding.”

In addition to her experienced production crew, Mary-Ellen also went to some of her friends in the theatre community for advice, including Marianne Copithorne and John Hudson, both of whom had been involved in other incarnations of Summer and Smoke.

“I was very concerned because I knew the length of the play – it’s a very lengthy play – and unlike with professional theatre where you’ve got your actors from 10 – 6, six days a week, this is community theatre. These people work during the day. They’re tired at the end of the day, then they come to rehearsal… I also knew it was going to be difficult to get all of the rehearsal time I needed, which is why I went to Marianne and John and said, ‘Look, what do you think? Here is what I am planning; will this rehearsal schedule work?’ They said, ‘Yes, if you stick to your schedule; this should work.’”

In doing a bit of background research, I found out the play has had three titles: Chart of Anatomy, Summer and Smoke, and Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Mary-Ellen told me, however, that Eccentricities of a Nightingale is a completely different play than Summer and Smoke, a product of Tennessee’s workaholic tendencies. Despite the three titles, Mary-Ellen emphasizes Summer and Smoke was the right one.

“[The title Summer and Smoke] reflects [a line in] Hart Crane’s poem Emblems of Conduct, and Crane was a huge influence on Tennessee Williams… Summer and Smoke picks up on that whole idea of passion burning through a person and what one thought one needed or wanted dissipates in the smoke and how that passion can burn one out or burn away something to reveal something else and then, of course, summer is symbolic as a time of growth. The two main characters grow during the summer and live through that heat – that heat of summer, that burning sensation.”

I point out Summer and Smoke will be running on one of the year’s (supposedly) most romantic days, and asked why lovers should come to the play. Mary-Ellen’s response was absolutely touching.

“The play is about love. It’s about loving oneself and loving somebody else. Whether that love is requited or not, it is about love and the importance of love in your life and that can’t ever be minimized or forgotten and love doesn’t always work out. Does that mean we should stop loving? Or opening ourselves up to the possibility of love? It’s a human condition. We need to love, we need to reach out, we need to make ourselves vulnerable so that the potential can happen and grow, and we need to accept when sometimes that doesn’t happen. Or that it’s happened for a while but doesn’t continue. So yes, I think it’s absolutely appropriate around Valentine’s Day. I hope lovers will come and watch the play and walk out hand in hand and say, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so glad I’m with you.’”

Read more of the Behind Summer and Smoke series.

– Jenna Marynowski

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