Thursday, August 28, 2008

Summer and Smoke (Clurman Theater)

BOTTOM LINE: as good as it gets.

So often great plays by great playwrights get mired by a director’s compulsion to change, re-think or re-invent what is already a perfectly round wheel. Perhaps no playwright in the pantheon of American greats has been more victimized by this tendency than Tennessee Williams. Williams’ plays, famously famous for all the things they are rightly famous for, frequently have their beauty and their power and their frailty and their humanity diluted by productions that don’t adhere to the idea that if a play is great and you have a talented creative team behind it, the best thing to do is to get out of the way.

I am happy (no, thrilled actually) to report that Big Sky Theater Company’s current production of Summer and Smoke, does just that. Director Tlaloc Rivas and cohorts have taken an incredibly engaging minimalistic approach to their current production – running, sadly only through August 31 so go when you are done reading this – literally putting forth the play, the whole play, and nothing but the play. The stage is essentially bare, there is no set save for chairs for the well-costumed actors and a few furniture pieces, there are almost no props, lighting and sound cues have been whittled down to the bare minimum. The playing space on stage looks and feels physically uncluttered, and that allows for the playing space in your heart and in your head to be likewise, and thus open to receive whatever comes at you.

And what comes at you is a moving story told without the distractions that need not be there when you have a play this rich and a cast this good. Rivas keeps the show going at a good pace, allowing moments and emotions to be fully realized, but never over indulged. The cast is pitch-perfect in every aspect – individual call-outs are unnecessary as they are a true ensemble and operate as such, with nary a weak link to be found. I can’t imagine a finer showcase for this play or for these actors.

This is no small feat. Having seen a number of productions of a number of Tennessee Williams plays, from the well-known greats, to the lesser-known not-so-greats, this production of Summer and Smoke is an absolute standout. It succeeds mostly because it adheres to the idea that I think great theatre is predicated on: you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles, movable set pieces and expensive pyrotechnics when you have real human beings experiencing real human emotions on stage. Sometimes the brush of face or the turn of a phrase or the realization of a universal truth (“Forget about pride whenever it stands between you and what you must have”) has more impact than a thousand volts of electricity.

(Summer and Smoke plays at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street at 9th Ave. Remaining show times are Friday, August 29th at 8pm, Saturday, August 30th at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday, August 31st at 2pm. Tickets are $18...visit or call 212.279.4200.

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