On Stage

SUMMER AND SMOKE (Criterion Center Stage Right, through 10/20): There's a "Glass Menagerie" and "Streetcar Named Desire" every couple of years or so, but Tennessee Williams's 1948 play "Summer and Smoke" has been woefully neglected in New York, not having received a major production in decades. The ever-inventive Roundabout Theater has remedied this with a decent but not spectacular production of this difficult play. Containing many of the playwright's usual themes (repressed Southern womanhood, the conflict between sensuality and spirituality), the play is not top drawer Williams, but it deserves to be seen.

Set in a small Mississippi town in 1916, "Summer and Smoke" chronicles the lengthy relationship between Alma Winemiller (Mary McDonnell), the spinster daughter of a Southern minister, and John Buchanan Jr. (Harry Hamlin), the hedonistic doctor next door. The rebellious John carries on a torrid affair with the fiery dancer Rosa Gonzales (Lisa Leguillous). Alma - whose name, we are constantly reminded, is Spanish for "soul" - is a typical Williams heroine, a nervous wreck who cannot take a single breath without an exclamation of anxiety.

Over the course of many years, John and Alma have a series of encounters in which, despite their mutual attraction, their essential natures clash. When John badly propositions her, she berates him and flees, an action that will reverberate throughout their lives.

"Summer and Smoke" lacks the powerful dramatic structure of Williams's classic works; it's basically a drawn-out series of anecdotes graced by his illuminating dialogue and incisive characterizations.

Still, despite its languorous pacing, the play offers many pleasures along the way, and this sensitive production brings many of them to life.

Mary McDonnell does a beautiful job conveying her character's shifts between strength and weakness, sensuality and repression. Harry Hamlin is better at portraying the doctor's dissipation than his eventual redemption, but he has the looks and charisma to make his character credible.

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