Houston Ballet’s Summer and Smoke
Tennessee Williams’ work is re-envisioned for its 75th anniversary.
“Life is such a mysteriously
that no one should presume to judge and condemn
the behavior of anyone else.”
in Summer and Smoke
Of all the unforgettable female characters that the great gay playwright Tennessee Williams created, he loved one above all: Miss Alma Winemiller, the heroine of his 1948 drama Summer and Smoke. Like her creator, Miss Alma—the repressed spinster daughter of a conservative minister—finds herself torn between sex and spirituality.
In the 75 years since the play’s debut on Broadway, a number of superb actresses have also felt the irresistible allure of Miss Alma, including Geraldine Page, Betsy Palmer, Blythe Danner, Rosamund Pike, Amanda Plummer, and Marin Ireland.
More recently, Miss Alma has been flirting with the highly regarded British choreographer of narrative ballets, Cathy Marston. From March 9 through 19, Houston Ballet will unveil the world premiere of an hour-long dance version of Summer and Smoke choreographed by Marston, set to a newly commissioned score by American composer Michael Daugherty. This co-production by Houston Ballet and New York’s American Ballet Theatre features 30 dancers portraying 87 characters, with designs by Patrick Kinmonth.
“There’s a woman who lives in her soul, and a man who lives in his body. She focuses upon religion, and he embraces science,” Marston observes of the tensions dividing the play’s two leading characters, Miss Alma and Doctor John Buchanan, who are obviously attracted to each other. “I love that the premise is very structured. The detail of the characters is wonderful and rich. The secondary characters are also rich.”
A Texas Legacy
It is fitting that a ballet company in Texas should bring a dance version of Summer and Smoke to the stage. Williams’ play had its premiere at Margo Jones’ Theatre ’48, a famed Dallas theater-in-the-round, in 1948. Jones, who was dubbed “The Texas Tornado,” had co-directed the landmark first production of Williams’ The Glass Menagerie on Broadway in 1945, and was a visionary of the American resident theater movement.
Later that year, on October 6, 1948, Jones took her Dallas production of Summer and Smoke to Broadway, where it fared less well critically and closed after 102 performances. In 1952, the work was revived spectacularly at the Circle in the Square Theatre in a seminal off-Broadway production that catapulted two great stars to prominence: the actress Geraldine Page, who gave an incandescent performance as Miss Alma, and the legendary gay director José Quintero. That staging also cemented the importance of off-Broadway productions as a major force in the American theater.
In 1961, Page reprised her role as Miss Alma in the film version of Summer and Smoke, appearing opposite Laurence Harvey as Doctor John and garnering an Academy Award nomination for her performance.
Williams’ Defining Struggle
The story of Miss Alma and Doctor John would consume Williams for decades. While in Rome, he revised Summer and Smoke in advance of the London premiere of the play, but the drama was already deep in rehearsal by the time he arrived, so that rewrite was shelved. In 1964, he published his radical revision of the work entitled The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. “Aside from the characters having the same names and the locale remaining the same, I think The Eccentricities of a Nightingale is a substantially different play from Summer and Smoke, and I prefer it,” he wrote at the time. “It’s less conventional and melodramatic.” When Eccentricities debuted on Broadway in 1976, Clive Barnes, theater critic for the New York Times, observed, “The new work effectively knocks Summer and Smoke off the map, except as a literary curiosity.”
Perhaps one of the reasons for Williams’ decades-long fascination with Miss Alma was the deep personal resonance between the playwright and his character—most notably their painful struggles to accept and embrace their sexualities in repressive societies.
“Miss Alma grew up in the shadow of the rectory, and so did I,” Williams once observed. “She is my favorite because I came out so late and so did Alma, and she had the greatest struggle.” As theater critic John Lahr notes in his 2008 biography Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, “Williams’ own transition from timid virgin to florid gay man was his defining struggle.”
Cathy Marston finds fresh inspiration for her narrative ballet projects in history and literature. She is compelled by strong female characters, and has created works dramatizing the lives of Queen Victoria, Jane Eyre, and Mrs. Robinson (immortalized by Anne Bancroft in the 1967 film The Graduate). Over the last five years, she has dived deep into 20th-century American novels. In 2018, she created Snowblind for the San Francisco Ballet, inspired by Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel Ethan Frome. For the Joffrey Ballet, she created Of Mice and Men in 2022, after John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel. She plans to continue staging new narrative works when she takes the reins as ballet director and chief choreographer of Ballett Zürich, Switzerland’s largest ballet company, later this year.
Born in the United Kingdom in 1975, Marston received her dance training in Cambridge and at the Royal Ballet School in London. From 1994 until 1999, she danced with Ballett Zürich, the Ballett des Luzerner Theaters, and the Konzert Theater Bern. She was an associate artist of the Royal Opera House in London from 2002 to 2006. From 2007 to 2013, she served as director of Bern Ballett.
An Angel Emerges
Before starting to choreograph a new narrative work, Marston does extensive research and engages in a close reading of the text. When reviewing Williams’ detailed stage directions for the scenic design of the play, she was struck by the dramatist’s description of a stone angel. “For me, this was a great prompt to make a stone body into a dancer,” she notes. “I was a little bit inspired by Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, where angels hover over the streets of Berlin.”
Marston’s angel is a key character in her ballet, shadowing and interacting with Miss Alma and Doctor John at key moments.
“In my version of the ballet, we see the play that Tennessee wrote through [the eyes of] the angel,” she observes. “It was an exciting extra layer to investigate with the dancers in the studio.”
She arrives for the Houston rehearsals meticulously prepared, but also open to a level of collaboration with the dancers in establishing the movement vocabulary for the work that is uncommon in the world of ballet.
“I go into the studio with a list of words for each character, which could be verbs or words from the actual text,” she notes. “I spend the first week developing a vocabulary for each character. That might mean a way of walking, some leitmotifs, a way of holding their arms, or movement phrases.
“Each dancer who’s playing the character has materials that they can draw from in larger rehearsals. When I come to choreograph larger scenes, I work with the dancers. They can make suggestions for the role based on the vocabulary that we’ve already developed. It’s a very collaborative process.”
Marston has cast Houston Ballet’s luminous dramatic ballerina Jessica Collado as Miss Alma. Principal dancer Chase O’Connell, the tall, handsome newcomer who recently arrived from Salt Lake City, plays Doctor John. Soloist Mackenzie Richter creates the role of the angel.
Marston also chooses her collaborators carefully. The dramaturg for Summer and Smoke is Edward Kemp, a British theatrical director who served for 13 years as the head of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, England’s renowned actor-training program. Marston has worked with him on over 20 productions.
“We discuss what the [best] way into the story [might be]. For Summer and Smoke, it’s the angel,” she says. “Then we write the script—a scenario that structures the story in a way that can tell the story. I take that document to the composer and the designer, and work with them on the design.
“Ed Kemp will be in the studio when we are putting the piece together for the first run. It’s wonderful to have an extra pair of eyes looking at the details, the logic of things, the continuity. It’s wonderful to have someone who knows what you’re aiming for looking at the work objectively.”
Summer and Smoke marks her first collaboration with American composer Michael Daugherty, who was commissioned to create a new score for the production.
“He’s been someone I’ve had my ear on for a while. He’s got lots of beautiful music written,” Marston comments. “He definitely has a leaning towards Americana. He’s done something on Elvis.
“He loves film, and he loves literature. He enjoys working on leitmotifs. So each character has an instrument, sound, or melodic theme that identifies them. What I love about him is that his attitude towards melody is different from contemporary composers. Many contemporary composers shy away from strong melodies. As a dancer, melodies can carry you in a different way.”
A New Vision of Miss Alma
While many critics have interpreted Miss Alma as a tragic victim who is ultimately rebuffed in her search for love, Marston sees her as a survivor.
“Alma had anticipated this being the end of the world, and nothing could go on beyond that. Yet, the world keeps on turning,” Marston emphasizes. “She’s managed to express herself. She’s said to John, ‘I’ll give you my body and soul.’ Even though he doesn’t take it, she’s managed to free her soul.”
What: Houston Ballet presents Summer and Smoke
Where: Wortham Theater Center
When: March 9–19; March 17 is the LGBTQ Out at the Ballet performance with a private pre-show reception.
Info: Discounted orchestra-level tickets are available by entering code OUTBALLET when reserving for this performance at tinyurl.com/2p8f86ct