Critic's Choice

A smoldering 'Summer and Smoke' at Actors Co-op

“Summer and Smoke” may stand a little higher in the Tennessee Williams canon after you see an exceptional Actors Co-op revival of the 1947 drama, one of the best offerings in the company’s storied history.

The production avoids cliched pitfalls and embraces the humanity that drives Williams’ symbology-ridden study of the eternal clash between spirit and flesh. Director Thom Babbes unearths the mercurial yet specific qualities that make “Smoke” a masterwork, albeit one less iconic than "The Glass Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Kudos to a superb design team and ensemble surrounding the revelatory Tara Battani and excellent Gregory James. They play the repressed minister’s daughter Alma Winemiller (the story's metaphoric soul) and dissolute boy next door John Buchanan (its literal eros).

Both actors vanish inside their characters. Her evanescent, Mary-Louise Parker-meets-Kristen Wiig aspects are countered by his calmly volcanic energies, which recall the young Al Pacino by way of Adam Scott.

Indeed, one would likely need to travel back to the legendary José Quintero-helmed 1952 Circle in the Square production that launched Geraldine Page and the Off-Broadway movement to find such vivid embodiment of subtext.

From first Fourth of July tableaux to elegiac closing gesture, everyone is on the same page -- Williams’ -- around designer Rich Rose’s principal set. As the untenable Winemiller parents, Deborah Marlowe swipes whole scenes with an ice-cream-cone lick, and Jeffrey Markle makes an aptly saturnine foil.

Fernanda Rohd and Melody Hollis suggest opposite sides of the same essential coin as two very different inamoratas. Ditto Townsend Coleman and Marco Antonio Garcia as contrasting paterfamilias. Miss Alma’s literary coterie -- Markus Jorgensen, Ann Marie Wilding, Brian Habicht and the priceless Keri Tombazian -- along with Jorgensen's enigmatic salesman at the finale are worth the admission.

Enveloped in Vicki Conrad’s wardrobe, Bill E. Kickbush’s lighting, Cameron Combe’s sound and Cooper Babbes’ original music, they deliver the visceral and ephemeral goods. It would be unthinkable to miss.

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“Summer and Smoke”

Where: Actors Co-op, David Schall Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Also, 2:30 p.m. March 12 & April 16. Ends April 17. $30. (323) 462-8460 or www.ActorsCo-op.org. Running time:  2 hours, 30 minutes.

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