I WILL make it easy for those who never get beyond the first paragraph of a review. Patsy Ferran is giving a performance that people will talk about for many years in a mesmerising revival of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke. It is a rarely seen play with a history of disappointing productions, but in Rebecca Frecknall’s hands it has become a piece of absolutely compelling theatre.
Ferran plays Alma, the daughter of the church minister in a Mississippi town. From childhood, she is simultaneously infatuated with and repulsed by the earthiness of John, the boy next door (Matthew Needham, also first-rate). He makes her unwillingly focus on her head, her stomach, and her genitals. “I’ve fed all three,” he says. “You’ve fed none.”
He grows up to become a doctor, easily satisfied by drinking, gambling, and casual relationships with women. She grows into a nervy, hyperventilating Christian woman whose loveliness is trapped under a self-denying skin.
Over the course of a year, both are on a journey. A tragedy forces John to engage with his spirituality. A progressive release from her parents’ stultifying influence allows Alma to unlock her physicality. “The girl who said no — she doesn’t exist any more. She died last summer — suffocated in smoke from something on fire inside her.” So delicately believable are their scenes together that the audience is willing them to meet in tenderness as their painful paths cross.
The reason that Frecknall’s production is so compelling is that it leaves Williams’s rather clunky symbols (an anatomical chart opposed to a statue of an angel) to the imagination, and instead peels the relationship open in a dreamy horseshoe of haze and light. Tom Scutt’s bare set surrounds the action with nine open-fronted pianos.
The cast of eight use these to play Angus McRae’s relentless score, sometimes thundering in melody, sometimes plucked or bowed, always haunting. At one point, a metronome ticks away wasted moments in their lives. At another, a sudden act of violence is represented unforgettably by a flood of light and gorgeous, eerie song.
The cast is uniformly excellent, notably Nancy Crane as Alma’s sick and mischievous mother, Forbes Masson doubling as both troubled fathers, and Anjana Vasan as effortlessly sensual Rosa, also seeking to escape a chaotic home life.
But it is Patsy Ferran’s performance that breaks the heart. It is extraordinarily detailed, but never mannered, because each flicker of her eyes is precise with meaning. In a beautiful scene when she visits John in his surgery, and momentarily mistakes his taking her pulse for affection, a complete five-act drama crosses her face. The opening of a button on her blouse holds the entire Almeida Theatre audience breathless. Ye gods, Alma, rip the whole thing apart. Every one of us is burning with hope for you, body and soul.
“Summer and Smoke” continues at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, London N1, until 7 April. Box office: phone 020 7359 4404.