Summer and Smoke calls for a fixed set. On the viewer’s left is the interior of a rectory, in the center a fountain with a kneeling stone angel, and on the right the interior of a doctor’s office. A sky cyclorama, always visible, records afternoon, evening, and night, and together with music and lighting indicates changes of scene and time of day.
In the prologue, John Buchanan, the doctor’s son, startles ten-year-old Alma, daughter of the Episcopal minister, with a peashooter. He wants to return her gift of handkerchiefs, which evidently embarrassed him, but she mollifies him and shows him the angel’s name on the fountain, “Eternity,” which she says is “what people’s souls live in when they have left their bodies.” Her own name, she explains, means “soul” in Spanish, and he admits that he has been called “devil” at home. The scene ends as John kisses her roughly and runs off, snatching her hair ribbon.
Part 1, “A Summer,” begins on July 4, 1916, about fifteen years later. Band music is heard in the background, and fireworks light up the sky. Alma, now a music teacher about to sing at the town’s celebration, is announced offstage as “The Nightingale of the Delta.”
While John has become a restless young physician with “the fresh and shining look of an epic hero,” Alma is prematurely spinsterish, with a nervous laugh and gestures. Her social life seems to be confined to a pathetically small literary group that meets Wednesdays, whereas John is one of the “wasters, drunkards and lechers” for whom, according to his father, the medical profession has no room. John’s affair with Rosa Gonzales, the provocatively sensual daughter of the owner of the gambling casino at Moon Lake, soon becomes an object of town gossip.
John still teases and embarrasses Alma as he did when they were children, but now he also gives his professional opinion. Her frequent attacks of “heart trouble,” he believes, are caused by her nervous swallowing of air, a symptom of her “doppelgänger,” a term he refuses to explain. When he hurts her by telling her that some people find her speech and manner affected, Alma explains that she was forced at too early an age to assume many of the duties of a minister’s wife because of her mother’s incompetence. Her demented, perversely childish mother has deprived her of her youth, and she grew up surrounded more by older people than those of...
(The entire section is 1003 words.)