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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Set in a small Mississippi town, Summer and Smoke anticipates aspects of later Tennessee Williams plays. It has elements of a family drama, like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but it is largely concerned with the relationship between Alma Winemiller, a single woman, and her beloved, the doctor John Buchanan Jr. Alma, usually considered a direct predecessor to Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, differs from Blanche in that, while she is “high-strung,” she still retains a firm grasp on sanity.

Part of the reason that Alma remains at home is to help her father (a pastor) manage her mother, who suffers from some type of mental illness—possibly dementia. In one of her monologues, Alma loses patience and berates her mother.

You act like a child, but you have the devil in you. And God will punish you—yes! I’ll punish you too. I’ll take your cigarettes from you and give you no more. I’ll give you no ice cream either. Because I’m tired of your malice. Yes, I’m tired of your malice and your self-indulgence. People wonder why I’m tied down here! They pity me—think of me as an old maid already! In spite of the fact that I’m young. Still young! It’s you—it’s you, you’ve taken my youth away from me!

Alma and John, who have known each other since childhood, have definite differences that, ultimately, send them in different directions. Although neither of them is getting any younger, Alma retains her youthful idealism, but John seems to be squandering his medical training in drinking and gambling. After he pushes her to have sex, they meet in his office, where he tries to get her to see that the human body (depicted on an anatomy chart) is soulless, an idea she rejects. He later apologizes, having finally understood some of her essential qualities.

[I]t wasn’t the physical you I wanted. You didn’t have that to give to me. You had something else to give. You couldn’t name it and I couldn’t recognize it. I thought it was just a Puritanical ice that glittered like a flame. But now I believe it was flame, mistaken for ice.

At the end, she and John go in opposite directions, with Alma awakened to bodily pleasures and John marrying another woman and going off to take up a noble cause. Alma recognizes the irony of their situation.

The tables have turned—yes, the tables have turned with a vengeance! You’ve come around to my old way of thinking and I to yours like two people exchanging a call on each other at the same time, and each one finding the other gone out and the door locked and nobody home to answer the bell!

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