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Bruce Miller, Virginia Repertory Theatre's artistic director (right) with managing director Phil Whiteway at the Anything Goes Gala in January. (Photo courtesy Virginia Repertory Theatre)
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Theatre IV co-founder Bruce Miller (behind the van, resting his elbows on top) with the troupe circa 1976 (Photo courtesy Virginia Repertory Theatre)
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Bruce Miller (center) in costume for the "Jubilee" bicentennial celebration (Photo courtesy Virginia Repertory Theatre)
The choice of Tennessee Williams' 1948 play "Summer and Smoke" as the last production Bruce Miller will direct is rooted in histories both personal and theatrical for Virginia Repertory Theatre's artistic director.
“This is definitely a considered choice,” says Miller, “and whether articulate or degenerate, I’ll leave that up to other people to decide.”
Virginia Rep (formed in 2012 with the merger of Theatre IV and Barksdale Theatre), should with some regularity produce classic American works, he says, and the company hadn’t staged any Tennessee Williams plays in a while. “We have a responsibility to do the great plays past, present and future.”
Miller, a longtime admirer of "Summer and Smoke," believes it’s the best of Williams’ work. Set in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, during the first part of the 20th century, it tells the story of Alma Winemiller (played by Carolyn Demanelis in this production), an unmarried minister’s daughter who is contending with her spiritual and sexual dilemmas and her attraction to bad-boy physician John Buchanan Jr. (Alexander Sapp).
Williams famously said that Alma was his favorite female character that he'd written. Because of financial circumstances and cultural mores, she can’t pursue John with the passion she feels for him. “I’m guessing that Tennessee had some of these conflicts in his own life," Miller says. "He suppressed his homosexuality and could not openly live as he wished. Alma faces that dilemma and pursues a similar path. When I view the play that way, it really comes to life for me.”
Williams showed his affinity for the character and her story by working on the play in three different versions. The 1948 Broadway show at New York’s Music Box Theatre disappointed audiences who wanted "The Glass Menagerie" and "A Streetcar Named Desire." The 1952 production revamped by Jose Quintero ran for 359 performances. Geraldine Page played Alma in the 1961 film version, and in 1964, Williams retitled the show "Eccentricities of a Nightingale."
"Summer and Smoke" also played a role in the origins of Barksdale Theatre. In 1953, six New York City actors chose to found what became the nation’s first dinner theater. Among their number was Stu Falconer, whose job at the time was stage manager for the renowned Circle in the Square production of "Summer and Smoke." Alma was played by Geraldine Page, and that production is considered the approximate starting place for the history of “Off-Broadway.”
Inspired by Margo Jones’ book "Theatre in the Round," which addressed the need for regional theaters outside the confines of Broadway, and powered by youthful idealism, the group of actors came to Hanover County. Falconer likely didn’t realize that Circle in the Square had a breakout hit on its hands — the "Hamilton" of its day — and, anyway, his mother lived nearby.
As a young theater person working at the Barksdale’s Hanover Tavern, Miller asked what the six actors were doing before they came to Virginia, besides theater. Pete Kilgore was driving a cab. Muriel McAuley modeled. As noted, Falconer was the stage manager at Circle in the Square. Miller asked about how the six dealt with the emotions of leaving New York City's Manhattan borough for a broken down tavern in the wilds of Virginia.
“When I was beginning to direct 'The Good Doctor' there, I asked Muriel about doing 'Summer and Smoke.' ” McAuley showed no enthusiasm for the idea; they’d retired that jersey. Miller recalls, “She told me that they’d already done that show. And I was quite certain that they’d not.”
Then McAuley told Miller the story of how in the summer of 1953, living and working in the tavern without glass in the windows or indoor plumbing or air conditioning, there came a time when Falconer had second thoughts. The six decided to undertake a table reading of the play he’d left in New York, along with two children required by the Williams script.
“And in this way, they addressed what one of them had given up — and all of them had given up a lot,” Miller says. “And I have no doubt that there were more people who thought they were more crazy than heroic. Following your passions this way was foolhardy and taking yourself down a path doomed to failure. They ignored all that, all the conventional wisdom, and they took the giant step and opened the first professional theater of Richmond’s modern era.”
Barksdale conducted its business with integrated casts and audiences in contradiction to Jim Crow laws, and produced Central Virginia’s first professional productions of works by playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller and Lorraine Hansberry. But it was tough going. By 1958, just Pete Kilgore and Muriel McAuley remained of the founders, with Kilgore’s second wife, Nancy.
“They lived their dreams, unlike Alma,” Miller says. “They said: ‘I’m going to go for it, damn it to hell, because my heart and spirit tell me to.' ”
That story resonates through Miller’s life and his choices as he leaves a job he’s held for 41 years. “The decision I made, to do all the things I’ve done, was the right one,” he says.
“So I’ve ended up here, instead of like Alma at the train station. I regret that you get older, regret you can’t keep a job you love forever, but I have no regrets about the way I’ve lived. That’s what, for me, Tennessee Williams was trying to tell us, that all of us want to get to that place where we can say, ‘This is the life meant for me.’ ”
Miller, who established Theatre IV in 1975 with co-founder Phil Whiteway, will stay on for a couple of years to work in fundraising and education. “I’m not at all ready to retire. There’ll be no golfing. There’s never been any golfing,” he says, with a laugh. “The board of directors offered me this fundraising position and we’ve given assurances to the new artistic director candidates [that] if I don’t behave myself, they have the opportunity to send me away.”
In "Summer and Smoke," he'll work with six adults and two kids who play all the roles, and in this way reference the epiphany that occurred in that windowless tavern in Hanover County in the summer of 1953. “That’s where my spirit is guiding me. It’s coming full circle. I remember sitting on the rug by Muriel and hearing the story at the beginning of my career, and I revisit it now at this end of it, taking this trip again with Tennessee and Alma Winemiller.”
The show opens at Virginia Rep on April 22 and runs through May 15. Tickets are $30 to $46. 282-2620 or va-rep.org.