The most striking feature of Tennessee Williams Summer and Smoke as performed at the Guthrie Theater was the transformation of the characters. There are several elements that reflect this transformation. These elements are set, costumes and character mannerisms, which are all symbolic. As a result of these complexities, the audience is exposed to a very deep and meaningful production. Summer and Smoke illustrates the transformation of the human mind and body through eloquent symbolic subtleties that are present through out the play.
The set is a powerful tool in the hands of it’s designer. The feel of a set to the audience and the characters is an important facet of making a production successful. The choice of furniture style and dcor can help the audience get a feel for the characters that are portrayed as using this furniture. A person with a rough-cut personality is usually portrayed with rough furniture. On the other hand, a softhearted character is portrayed with furniture that relays his/her softness.
In the production, the choice of furniture styles and dcor in Alma’s house and John’s house indicate that these two characters are on opposite sides of the spectrum. Alma’s furnishings consist of velvet cloth furniture, which is a soft, nurturing material, that symbolizes her child like naivete and her family’s good heartedness. On the other hand, the doctor’s furniture in the first half of the play, is pale yellow wood furniture. This choice seems to scream at me that the characters that are being portrayed with this particular set are inanimate and cold just like the wood. The pale yellow color in the furniture hints at the fact that a particular character is suffering from some form of an illness. In John Jr.’s case, this represents his disbelief in a spiritual side to the human being. This scene changes dramatically in the second half of the play. The doctor’s office, which was formerly yellow wood, turns into a white set, which seems to cheer up the scene and portrays John’s recovery from his illness.
The characters themselves also play a major role in the ongoing symbolistic transformations in the production. A character’s demeanor, his speech and his mannerisms are all important forms of symbolic subtleties that if picked up and understood can add a dramatic amount of meaning to a production.
One of the first noticeable symbolic sayings in the production occurs between John and Alma. In the beginning, Alma is complaining to John that she is feeling weak and faint at heart. John then quickly retorts and says that she has a doppelganger. Not knowing what a doppelganger is, Alma brushes it off and pays no attention. Later, Alma then finds out that the term doppelganger means that she has a person inside of her. The doppelganger that John refers to symbolizes an alternate behavior, or to be more specific an alternate personality inside of Alma, which she does not yet exhibit. This facet of her personality is her wild side, the person that never says No. This behavior manifests itself later in the production.
The second and more inconspicuous symbolism is found in the title of the production. The smoke in Summer and Smoke, represents two different things. As Alma was talking to John in the second to the last scene of the play, she states, smoke comes, from my burning inside. This statement from Alma points to the fact that she is hurting from her undying love for John, to which he is not willing to reply, and seeks to give to Nellie. The second possible meaning for smoke is also shown in the second to the last scene where John points at the anatomy chart and try’s to explain to Alma that he has come around to her way of thinking, that there is a soul in the human body. He states the soul is as thin as smoke, but nevertheless it is there.
Adding yet another dimension to the play are the costumes. The costumes can enlighten the audience with regard to the characters. They can aid the audience in deciphering which characters’ personalities match and which individuals are truly incompatible. In the production, it was obvious that Dr. John Sr. and Alma dressed in the same light color palates. This gives the audience the impression that these characters complement each other. This is the case because; they both trusted each other enough to share Alma’s most intimate secrets. On the contrary, Rosa Gonzales wore a provocative red dress, which beautifully contrasted Alma’s more conservative white dress. During the play, it was obvious that the two of them never saw eye to eye.
Both Alma and John change into different style and color of clothes in the ending scene. In the beginning, Alma was wearing her traditional white dress, while John wore his dressy white suite. This change in attire symbolizes to the audience their evolved personalities. In the ending scene Alma’s dress becomes a shade of brown, which is a darker more engaging color. The style of this particular dress was much more flamboyant. Her hair, along with her inner wild side was also let loose. All these changes intend to show us that she has lost all hope and gone to a more defiant and less respectable route. John, On the other hand, is now sporting a black, more conservatively cut suite. It is also painstakingly obvious that he has abandoned his renegade ways, and has now become a more responsible and respectable man.
Character transformation is evident in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Summer and Smoke. The set, costumes, and character mannerisms are all symbolic elements, which reflect these transformations. If picked up and understood these symbolic elements add more depth and meaning to the production. These transformations improved the production and made it more interesting by hinting at the minute and otherwise unnoticeable subtleties in the characters and their actions.