The arts and economics have been strange/strained bedfellows for eternity. Increasingly, artistic health is equated to the balance sheet (“How’s the XYZ Symphony?”—“Great, they’re in the black.”). Recently, the peninsula had its own symphonic melody-drama with the Niagara Symphony Association’s near-brush with bankruptcy—they’ve been given a reprieve, but will the quality (er, artistic, that is) improve?—worse—will anyone care?).
And so to Shaw, where director Neil Munro has been charged with bringing the first-ever production of a Tennessee Williams play to the boards, the forever thoughtful, Summer and Smoke. While its link to the mandate may be a tad tenuous, anticipation was high for what might come our way from Munro’s fabled creativity and the impressive acting skills of the company.
Sad to say the tender—albeit brief—prologue where young John Buchanan Jr. (the elder brought to life with conviction by Jeff Meadows) and young Alma Winemiller (Nicole Underhay overcomes her on-again off-again Southern drawl and crafts a sympathetic martyr) deliver the key back-story in the company of the metaphorical fountain angel (whose crisp, clear water emerging for all to savour was scrapped—voiding the marvellous symbol of the power of natural sources). In its place were recorded cherubic voices delivering most of the lost dialogue at various times throughout the production. Artistic licence? Methinks not: Who wants to shoulder the cost of a pair of child actors (and their stage parents nattering more than fully fledged ACTRA members), when merely rearranging the playwright’s vision would, surely, produce the same result?
All of which reminds one of the old musicians’ “joke” when a business consultant realizes how much money could be saved if orchestras employed string quartets instead of string sections … think Tchaikovsky lite.
And so this production begins with the 1916 Fourth of July celebration in Glorious Hill, Mississippi. The now mature Alma is about to entertain the holiday throng with an offstage rendition of “La Golondrina.” Her parents (Jay Turvey stepping up to the plate, replacing Peter Hutt as the long-suffering Reverend and Sharry Flett stealing every scene she’s in as the mentally challenged wife who—by play’s end—seems saner than the sane) are soon joined by John Jr. and his research-obsessed father. Both men are doctors: John Sr. is trying to find the cure for a virus to save humanity; his sole offspring intent on scoring with any woman who catches his eye while drinking and gambling his way into infamy. Not surprisingly, father/son relations are tense.
After her performance, Alma joins the assemblage (the stage is set with congregation-style ‘pews” and sliding draperies to create Williams’ suggestive rather than detail laden scenes: “Sections of walls are used only where they are functionally required.”). Temporarily out of the tableau, John Jr. tosses a firecracker Alma’s way and re-enters her life with a bang. In an echo of Ado Annie in Oklahoma (now playing at Stratford, cross-reference below), she reveals her nervous surprise with an airy laugh that becomes the equivalent of a leitmotif.
Before you can say “picking up where we left off” she’s head-over-plume back in love with the wayward physician, but because most of the opening scene is still yet to be heard (much less seen) their puppy love set-up (replete with a pea shooter assault to gain her attention, handkerchiefs, drinks from the angel’s heavenly stream, and the first kiss) those who’ve neither seen another production nor read the play will have difficulty appreciating Williams’ subtlety of character development.
Several times we hear the boy-John spell out “Eternity,” but having not understood its first reference etched at the base of the angel (John uses his wee fingers to figure out the meaning—more than love is blind here), the significance becomes buried and its impact largely diminished.
Most of the play’s scenes then alternate between the rectory and Johns’ house, which also serves as the Doctors’ office and examining room. The two homes are side by side. There’s another key element in the doctors’ domain: a “section of wall to support the chart of anatomy.” Once again Munro overrules the playwright, choosing to have his fountain angel on wheels do double duty and fulfill the anatomical requirement as well. This rendering adds more confusion than dramatic enhancement. Surely there is the wherewithal amongst the design elves to craft a more plausible solution to the human frame laid medically bare.
Still, the final exam by the suddenly orphaned, now tamed physician as Alma shamelessly offers her bosom to the newlywed’s stethoscope is an incredible moment of soundless emotion that should put the entire outing near the top of any serious theatre lover’s must-see list.
More opportunities lost than found, it’s these little gems in the rough that keep drawing us back. JWR