Tennessee Williams made his choice clear. In a battle between his play “Summer and Smoke” and the similar-but-different rewrite “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale,” the latter got the playwright’s nod. “I prefer it,” Williams wrote in the author’s note for the Broadway production of “Eccentricities.” “It is less conventional and melodramatic.” Renegade Theater Company has opted to not pick between the two plays: They’re producing both versions using the same cast and sets and different directors in alternating performances at Teatro Zuccone. “Summer and Smoke,” directed by Molly O’Neill, opens at 8 p.m. today. “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale,” directed by Anika Thompson, opens at 8 p.m. Friday. Both play on Saturdays. “I don’t know what we were thinking,” theater director Katy Helbacka said and laughed.
How this works
Renegade Theater Company’s season selection committee was kicking around a classic, something they’ve yet to do under the current theater director. When “Summer and Smoke” was mentioned, Thompson — who had read both plays — mentioned the alternate version and threw out the idea: “I said, ‘Let’s do both and let other people make the decision,’ ” Thompson said. It was more of an idea than an edict, but it stuck. The idea fit with Renegade’s lean toward edgy theater. Instead of just doing a classic, they would turn it into extreme theater. It’s not unusual for a company to have simultaneous performances starring the same cast, Helbacka said. “It happens a lot with summer repertory programs,” she said. “But usually it’s completely different shows. They’ll be in ‘Oklahoma’ and a Neil Simon play at the same time.” Rehearsals started about eight weeks ago with chunks of consecutive days dedicated to one script, then switching to the other for a similar period. This meant making clear divisions between the plays. While there was some initial brainstorming between the two directors, they’ve both stayed away from the other production. “For me, I said I don’t want to hear anything about the other show when we’re in rehearsals,” O’Neill said.
For the actors
Carolyn LePine, who plays the lovelorn Alma Winemiller, might have the trickiest job. There are similarities between the shows, but the feel is different, she said. Some of her lines cross over, but come at different points in the different plays and sometimes have a different meaning. “This has literally been the hardest theater thing I’ve ever done,” LePine said. “Once I started getting into it I thought, ‘I don’t know if this is actually possible.’ I knew that it was both plays, which is partially what appealed to me. But I don’t think I realized how difficult it would be. If they were two completely different shows, I don’t think it would be a problem. But the same characters and some of the same scenes and some dialogue moved to different areas of the play … that has been really, really hard.” Joshua Stenvick plays Alma’s love interest, John Buchanan Jr., versions that are different enough to consider them as separate characters. “I’ve had an easier job,” the University of Minnesota Duluth student admitted. “To me, Tennessee Williams wrote them completely different. He’s two different men.”
So which play is better?
Renegade Theater Company’s selection committee originally asked Thompson which version was better, and she said she didn’t know. But when she realized she didn’t have the time to direct both shows, she selected “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale” without hesitation, she said. “Previous to that, I hadn’t been able to say (which one I liked better),” she said. “There are elements to both.” The character John is more fun in “Summer and Smoke,” she said. But it’s Alma’s refusal to be a victim in “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale,” that sold her. “She acknowledges that she’s different, but refuses to change,” Thompson said. “That might make her an outcast, but she can’t change the way she is. It’s a much more empowering version.” O’Neill said she likes the old-fashioned romance of “Summer and Smoke.” “In ‘Eccentricities,’ (Alma’s) the pursuer,” O’Neill said. “John’s more cool and she’s more hot. In this one, John’s hot and she’s cool. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, I just feel like that is such a romance for me.” Plus she gets characters such as Rosa Gonzales, Dr. John Buchanan Sr. and Alma’s young vocal student, Nellie, who aren’t a part of “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.” “I have these really cool characters,” O’Neill said. The actor’s aren’t revealing which version of the show they like best. “I don’t want to say,” LePine said. “That’s a secret I’m going to keep to myself,” Stenvick said.