This spring, Bruce Miller directs his final production as Virginia Rep’s Artistic Director: Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. In his note below, read how he came to direct this piece & the story behind the show.
While still a theatre student at U of R, I joined the Barksdale family as an actor in their 1971 production of Invitation to a March at an erstwhile studio theatre space in downtown Richmond known as Barksdale Experimental. Eight years later, my second professional directing opportunity outside of Theatre IV was on the Barksdale mainstage at Hanover Tavern (The Good Doctor, 1979). When Barksdale founders Muriel McAuley and Pete Kilgore offered me the job, they asked for a short list of the plays I’d like to direct. At the top of my list was Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke.
Over the years, I had been enthralled by countless stories about the founding of Barksdale in 1953, when six New York theatre artists decided to risk everything to move to Hanover to start metro Richmond’s first professional performing arts organization of the modern era. I knew well that one of the founders, Stu Falconer, had left his job as stage manager of the legendary Off Broadway production of Summer and Smoke to join his friends on their bold adventure. That 1952 production of Summer … was not just any NYC show. It had been the talk of the town—the Hamilton of its day.
After initially flopping on Broadway in 1948, the Summer … revival was directed by José Quintero and starred Geraldine Page at the original Circle in the Square in Greenwich Village. Because of that revival’s unparalleled critical and commercial success, it has long been credited as the start of Off Broadway. For Stu to leave his secure job in that production to start a brand new theatre in a rundown tavern in rural Virginia was a huge and astounding gamble, to say the least.
And yet, to the best of my knowledge at the time, Summer and Smoke had never been produced by Barksdale Theatre at Hanover Tavern.
When I handed Muriel McAuley my list of play suggestions, and she read the first title, she emphatically said, “No. We retired that jersey.” I asked what she meant. She let out a sigh, and told me this story.
On a hot night in August, 1953, about a week after the intrepid New York artists and their two children had invested every penny they ever hoped to have into purchasing and moving into Hanover Tavern, with no glass in the windows, no indoor plumbing, and certainly no air conditioning, they all gathered in the unfinished English basement that they dreamed one day to turn into a theatre. They held a private reading of Summer and Smoke. No one else was there.
Nonetheless, it was the first play ever to be brought to life by the motley company that has now become Virginia Rep.
“And it was the best damn Summer and Smoke that will ever be done anywhere by anyone,” Muriel assured me.
I have no reason to doubt her word. Summer and Smoke is about many things. One of them is the importance of risking everything you have to find, claim, and follow your passion. That’s what the founders of Barksdale did when they were all in their 20s. That’s what Phil Whiteway and I did in 1975 when we founded Theatre IV.
Now, as I direct the final show of my 41-year career as Artistic Director, I am honored to work with this wonderful cast of six eager actors all in their 20s, and two talented kids, to honor that evening in 1953 when a similar group used Summer and Smoke to validate the craziness, the camaraderie, and the commitment that would determine the direction of the rest of their lives.
Like Pete and Muriel and the other Barksdale founders, I have been privileged to build a life in Richmond theatre. I have not done it alone. To each and every one of you who have been there for the journey, I offer my undying gratitude. Thank you for giving me my life.
Summer and Smoke runs April 22 – May 15 at the November Theatre, 114 W Broad St, Richmond VA. Tickets are available here.