Tonight, a play by Tennessee Williams opens for the first time in the West End. It's an early, much-praised play whose text is as breathlessly beautiful as its title: Summer and Smoke. And, given that Williams published it straight after the success of A Streetcar Named Desire, its London debut is overdue.
In America the work is hard to avoid. A perennial favourite of summer theatres and schools, it has frequently been seen since its Broadway opening in 1948. In 1961 it was made into a film, starring Geraldine Page, and it has been dramatised for TV, most notably in 1976, with the lead role of Alma Winemiller, the small-town minister's daughter beset with sexual anxiety, taken by the Broadway star Blythe Danner (Gwyneth Paltrow's mother). There was a Broadway revival in 1996, an off-Broadway one in 2004, and this year a production at a distinguished regional theatre, with Amanda Plummer as Alma.
In the UK the role will be played by Rosamund Pike, who, like Alma, is in her mid-twenties, and whose doll-like prettiness accentuates the character's air of unreality. Pike was so entranced with the play that she spent several weeks in the towns of the Mississippi Delta (where the play is set, in 1912) listening to voices and recording them. "I also wanted to see everything mentioned in the play," she says. "The people have changed, but those lovely wooden Victorian buildings are still there."
Pike was about to leave, convinced that Southern gentility was dead, when down the steps of her guest house there came wafting a lady in her seventies. "Everything about her - her gestures and expressions - was like Alma. She was elegant but shy." But Pike doesn't think that's all there is to Alma, who has had to assume while young an uncomfortable maturity, looking after her mad mother. "I think Alma is heroic."
How does the producer of the current revival account for the play's neglect in this country? Kim Poster, an American, who "fell in love with it as a teenager", can't understand it, though she suggests that the identification of the role with Page, who was going to bring the play to London but then became pregnant, "cast a very long shadow". That, combined with the potential for embarrassment in a deep-South accent, may have discouraged actresses from attempting the part.
The male lead, Poster says, is also a difficult part - underwritten but calling for an actor who, besides being handsome, has a mysterious, irresistible quality. She looked for six months before casting the American actor Chris Carmack who, she says, "is good at communicating in silence".
Another reason for the play's being slighted in this country, says Poster, might have been that producers thought it would seem bland after A Streetcar Named Desire's violent treatment of the same theme: a sensitive woman crushed by a sensual man. Such was the case with the Broadway premiere of Summer and Smoke. It was called pretentious and juvenile, with only Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times finding it "tremulous with beauty".
In 1952 the year-old Circle in the Square theatre company in Greenwich Village was looking for a play to star their most important actress, Page. The great director Jose Quintero felt that Summer and Smoke had been unfairly condemned, and that its lead was a perfect role for Page. So it proved - the critics raved about the poetic quality of her performance and the play itself.
Like the characters in all Williams's early plays, those in Summer and Smoke grew out of the nervous, maddening members of his family. The playwright said Alma, his favourite creation, was a self-portrait - "She seemed to exist somewhere in my being" - and her frustration, her hypochondria (like Williams, she complains of "palpitations") mirrors his own. The template, though, was his sister, Rose. Too fragile to cope with the stresses of daily life, she became, like Alma, hysterical at minor setbacks, talked uncontrollably about sex, and, before she was 30, was confined to an institution and later lobotomised. Williams saw his mother's fear of sex and disgrace as a motive for incarcerating Rose: Mrs Williams (like President Kennedy's mother, who subjected her own wayward daughter to a lobotomy), was terrified that Rose's vulnerability might lead to seduction or rape.
Alma, however, is more forceful and independent than Williams's other portrait of Rose, Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, and her mother exhibits Rose's less endearing traits. Among Alma's other problems, she must care for a parent who has slipped into a second childhood, and a naughty one. When Mrs Winemiller is not out shoplifting, she is cackling in the corner and taunting Alma about her love for young Dr Buchanan next door.
Williams began work on Summer and Smoke in 1945, when he was 34. It was then called "Chart of Anatomy", after the poster in Dr Buchanan's office. Contemptuous of Alma's bloodless purity, he forces her to look at it. "You think you're stuffed with rose leaves?" he says, pinning her hand on the various body parts he mentions.
But according to Adrian Noble, who is directing the present production, Williams's theme is bigger than sexual repression versus indulgence. "The subject is really beleaguered souls trying to find their way toward the light." But that light, as Williams knew, could not only illuminate; it could also blind and destroy. Asked on an American chat show what he thought was a necessary trait for happiness, Williams gave a most unAmerican answer: "insensitivity". In Summer and Smoke, Williams made his sister into a charming, desirable woman, but one whose sensitivity to the pain and loneliness of beauty meant that, like him, she would for ever be among the lost.
'Summer and Smoke' is at the Apollo Theatre, London W1, until 7 February (08708 901 101)Reuse content