by chris mills
Ah, the doppleganger. Since Hoffman (ha, E.T.A., not Dustin), it’s been a crackling staple of the uncanny. Perhaps the troubling double has been such a successful literary trope because it can work either in bona fide sci-fi modality, producing the terrifying, uncontrollable Frankensteinian other, or in a more nuanced Freudian rendition, as a passable explanation for “human nature” and the darkness contained therein, always waiting to bust out. This latter rendition is largely the underwriting logic in Tennessee Williams Summer and Smoke. Tlaloc Rivas is directing a new production of the 1948 play at the Clurman, staging the original version, rather than the later, revised The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, produced by The Actors Company Theatre in the spring. Rivas’s staging has some smart and fresh directing going on. One of the sparkiest overall moves was to cut as close to the bone as possible. The set is beautifully designed, and makes the simplicity of a platform and chairs seem sexy, tactile and rich with possibility, and the show is lit with both nuance and clarity. Without extraneous stage detail, we are still continuously sure as to our location in this almost stark—but never bleak— landscape. Just as blue plays across the costuming, providing a cool touch in the peek of a sock, a sweater trim or bit of lace, the details are right, reading when they should and still when they’re not. The actors, as a team, fill in the emotional landscape with technique similar to the design—smart, small details and determined movement, rather than broad or busy strokes.
All of these components were lovely, but, face it we must, if you’re gonna do Summer and Smoke, you need a powerful, subtle, energizing woman to emcee the proceedings. The actor playing Alma—“soul” in Spanish (a, might we say, religious version of the doppleganger?)—needs to perform that most difficult actor’s task: she must totally transform before our eyes. Because the story of a “spinster” with a long unrequited love for the boy next door is just the surface tale; it is the actual nature of love that is at stake. Is love sacrifice or indulgence? Is it generated by minute plotting or spontaneity, through passion or responsibility? Does it require dignity or soul-baring honesty? Mary Sheridan’s Alma Winemiller, needs to ask these questions for a repressed woman, operating in the history of women as both subject and object of repression, as written by a queer man in an era of deep sexual constraint, with punitive consequence for bad behavior. This, of course, is no easy task; it is, however, necessary, if the play is to deliver its force. The decision at which Alma arrives requires a total re-imagining of the method, purpose and function of love. Her risks need to be life threatening, literally. Her questions and decisions, like any act of primal transgression, need to take place on the rim of destruction; one which she arguably tips over—though this production pulls its ambiguous punch at the close. What we need as viewers is the terrible spectacle of someone crumbling into the future, repatching a facade in order to survive. Too often in this production, Sheridan seems brittle and petulant, like an aging girl playing dress-up, serving up a weak tea party. And, as the great Bette Davis warns, old age is no place for sissies.
I try to stick to the theater but the French Crime Wave series at Film Forum, drawing to its spectacular close, is so super that I can’t help mentioning it. Pierrot Le Fou was on this weekend, and lord, who can say no to Godard, Karena and Belmondo? Well, not me, and afterward, a brief walk will deposit you at ‘ino—making you remember how much better it is than its bigger, brasher, louder sibling, Inoteca—where you might try the summer tomatoes with delicious pesto, bright as a dewy field of basil, or end with mascarpone-topped, honey-soaked bread and fresh fruit. And if you’re lucky, your friend will point out that the movie was kind of like revisiting a crush, reminding you of how smart and sexy and generally terrific the object of your affection really is. That moment, happily, will help you (if you’re me) remember what it is that makes a classic—to return to last week’s thread. Whether a movie, a play, a sweetie or that aged sweater that you just can’t toss. Love brings us back and makes us want to share what we know of it with others. Like the high, thrilling rush of infatuation, the dark devotion that turns us into Mr. Hyde or the deep affection for known contours that still might hold surprises, the classics carry a history of love and for that alone, we must return to them.