Why Tennessee Williams’ Summer & Smoke is Timeless

Photo by Marc Brenner

Photo by Marc Brenner

  • Kristen Pizzo

I’m guilty of using the same monologue for almost every audition. I can’t help that Miss Alma from Summer and Smoke just feels so right for me. 

If you don’t know the play, it’s about a minister’s daughter, Miss Alma, who is in love with her childhood friend, John Buchanan, a handsome doctor who seeks pleasure in gambling and sex.

If you’ve ever seen the illustration of a female figure next to a male figure where a heart is placed in the female figure’s head but placed in the male figure’s groin area, this play is basically a theatrical representation of that. 

Miss Alma is a spiritual woman who loves with her mind and wants to be loved for her mind and have emotional, intelligent connections, while John is all about the pleasures of the flesh.

But the tables turn when Miss Alma finally allows herself to acknowledge her sexuality and can no longer resist the magnetic connection between her and John that is clearly about more than just his beautiful mind.

Although she once refused his advances, she later realizes her desires and comes onto him. But it is too late. He has come to realize that he values her soul first and foremost and no longer wants a physical relationship with her…oh and he happens to be engaged to Miss Alma’s much-younger vocal student, so that’s also a problem.

(For a fascinating, more in-depth analysis of the play, check out Sheila O’Malley’s blog.)

The monologue I often perform is Miss Alma admitting her lifelong love for John and pleading with him to explain why things never “happened” between them. I’ve used the monologue so often that it has become so rote that I don’t always truly feel it the way I should. But I recently went back to the script to search for another monologue that would work for me, just to switch it up a bit for an upcoming audition. I needed something that showed Miss Alma as a strong woman, not pleading for John’s love, but truly owning her desires for him. 

That’s when I fell in love with the play all over again. Because Alma is me. She is everyone who can’t get down with hookup culture because they want to be valued and loved for who they are first, but struggle because they are human, and of course, want intimacy. 

I have always had a yearning to be seen for my mind, my soul, and my dreams, and when I think I am, only then do I allow myself to seek out that intimacy. Emotional connection is my biggest turn-on. But I often fear that sex overrides all, and I don’t want to be remembered as the one girl someone messed around with. I want to be remembered for me. I am forever seeking that balance between emotional, soulful connections and intimacy.

I want to be confident in my sexuality and sex-positive without shame but I also want to be strong and steadfast in my pursuit of deeper connections.

Sometimes I put my guard up and give people the wrong impression- that I am cold and detached - because I worry that I will lose my sense of self in the pursuit of love and intimacy.

In the play, John describes Alma’s tendency to do this same thing when he says, “I thought it was just a Puritanical ice that glittered like flame. But now I believe it was flame, mistaken for ice.”

The hardest breakup I endured as a teenager was spurred by the words “I don’t think about you when you’re not around. I think I am just infatuated with you.”

Being written off as an object of lust and nothing more when I felt there was something emotional and beautiful between me and that boy destroyed me. I had let myself go as far as I did with him because I trusted that connection I felt. I didn’t want to be like Alma, missing her chance with John because she held back for too long. I didn’t want to believe that introducing intimacy into the equation would ruin everything. I wanted that balance that is the center of the conflict in Summer and Smoke. 

And I think a lot of us seek that. In this age of swiping left or right where you can arrange a love life with Amazon Prime-speed, it is easy to feel used and disposable and to give too much to people who do not have the same intentions.

This Summer and Smoke conflict has shown up again, in my life:  I have become intimate with someone whose mind I adored only to find out that they only saw sex (and me, consequently) as something to “do.” 

Of course, there are those who can compartmentalize their relationships as “sexual” and “romantic” and keep each one in its respective lane with boundaries and feelings kept in check.

But I am not one of those people. I am Miss Alma.