The metaphors in Tennessee Williams' play Summer and Smoke aren't exactly subtle, and his archetypically Southern characters speak in densely poetic monologues. It almost seems like this Mississippi-set tragedy of a lost man and a falling woman was always supposed to be an opera.
The female lead is named Alma, the Spanish word for "soul." She's a repressed, highly strung, and highly spiritual preacher's daughter who's fallen in love with John, a freewheeling young doctor with a taste for booze. He'll eventually break her spirit by sharing a chart of the human anatomy to prove there is no soul located between the liver and lungs. The story's central image is of a fountain decorated with a carved angel, where Alma and John played as children and where Alma will eventually cut a deal with her own dignity.
Copeland Woodruff's University of Memphis Opera production of Summer and Smoke — adapted from Williams' original play by playwright Lanford Wilson and composer Lee Hoiby — won't shy away from Williams' calculated excess. "The costumes are very 1910-1916," Woodruff says. "But the environment is universal and more expressionistic."
Inspired by his mentor, the innovative New York-based director Anne Bogart, Woodruff has tried to find ways to literally bring Williams' haunted landscape to life.
"The children — both the younger John and Alma — are in the prologue and the dialogue," he says. "The set will do, for lack of a better word, magical things. All the doors and windows will open at once, which you don't expect. People tend to think of Williams' plays as kitchen-sink dramas, but that's not where he was going. It's all very poetic."
"Summer and Smoke" at the University of Memphis' Harris Concert Hall, Friday, November 30th, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, December 2nd, at 3 p.m. $10 general admission; $7 non-U of M students and seniors; free to U of M students, faculty, and staff with ID.