By Sarah Downs,

Aaah, Tennessee Williams.  No-one writes wanton desperation the way he does.  His characters live in a world of illusion, frustration their guide and loneliness their perennial companion.   Even his happy characters are sad; they just don’t know it yet.

In Summer and Smoke, Alma Winemiller (Marin Ireland) unmarried daughter of repressive Reverend Winemiller (T. Ryder Smith) and his mad wife (Barbara Walsh) lives with her parents in the stifling limbo of singlehood, enduring the tedium and isolation of Southern respectability.

Young though she may be, Alma has somehow skipped past ingenue to spinster.  She’s odd.  She’s lonely.  She lacks the giddy self-confidence of girls like her pretty voice student Nellie Ewell (Hannah Elless) or the seductive allure of Rosa Gonzalez (Elena Hurst), daughter of the local casino owner, Papa Gonzalez (Gerardo Rodriguez).  Spending her days managing her father’s household and wrangling with her mother’s vicious (and unexplained) insanity, Alma tries to content herself with social outlets like the weekly gathering of her motley social circle, the town busybody Mrs. Bassett (Tina Johnson), dweeby suitor Roger Doremus (Johnathan Spivey), and timid Rosemary (Glenna Brucken).  It is, of course, not nearly enough.

Alma is ever conscious of being a ‘preacher’s daughter.’  Tempests may roil within her, but Alma must bank the fires and wait.  As she hovers, the boy for whom she pines, John Buchanan (Nathan Darrow) struggles with his own powerless virility.  Resisting the impossible expectations of his doctor father (Phillip Clark), Buchanan acts out.  Dissipation leads to tragedy, the repercussions of which reverberate disastrously through his and Alma’s lives.  Afterward, when Alma chances upon Archie Kramer (Ryan Spahn), a benign but opportunistic out-of-towner, you wonder how far these repercussions will echo.

Jack Cummings III has directed this production brilliantly.  It is taught and purposeful yet unhurried.  He has wrapped the actors in an invisible net that coils the energy ever inward.  The set design by Dane Laffrey brings that tautness into three dimensions:  a spare rectangle of white canvas underfoot, a handful of period wooden chairs, and two framed images on easels.  Stripped of all but the essentials, it is the perfect untrodden space  across which characters pace, meander or promenade.  The warm white-on-white lighting by R. Lee Kennedy is similarly un-fussy – bright but not cruel.

Michael John LaChiusa has composed beautiful music that evokes and elevates the mood, the era, and the text.  Dancing violin and lean piano lines weave a variety of musical elements together, even including a frisson of Chinese melody, which, in the attention to detail that defines the high quality of this production references the text of the play as well as cultural inflection.  It’s America in 1916.  East Asian design has become the fashion, as reflected in the well-executed period costume.  Kathryn Rohe has made careful color and style choices to fit each character.

However, the centerpiece that drives this production is the cathartic performance of Marin Ireland as Alma.  I don’t know when I have seen such exquisite acting.  She mesmerizes.  She dazzles.  She tears your heart out.   Nathan Darrow as Buchanan, complements her work with a committed, nuanced performance of his own.  He gives us much more than the handsome, charismatic yet troubled young man.  Ireland and Darrow also share a palpable, almost painful chemistry.  It stands sentinel between them.  Indeed, it is the bridge Alma and Buchanan cannot cross, no matter their intent and intensity.

SUMMER AND SMOKE, by Tennessee Williams, directed by Jack Cummings III, with Glenna Brucken, Phillip Clark, Nathan Darrow, Hannah Elless, Elena Hurst, Marin Ireland, Tina Johnson, Gerardo Rodriguez, T. Ryder Smith, Ryan Spahn, Jonathan Spivey and Barbara Walsh.  Sets by Dane Laffrey; costumes by Kathryn Rohe; lighting by R. Lee Kennedy; sound design by Walter Trarbach; original music by Michael John LaChiusa;

Presented by the Classic Stage Company and Transport Group at CSC (136 East 13th Street); April 13th through May 20th (official opening night is May 3rd)  For tickets, click here or call the box office 212.677.4210  Run time:  2 1/2 hours with one 10 minute intermission.