"In Alma's voice and manner there is a delicacy and elegance, a kind of 'airiness,' which is really natural to her as it is--in a less marked degree--to many Southern girls.
"Her gestures and mannerisms are a bit exaggerated but in a graceful way. . . . She seems to belong to a more elegant age, such as the 18th Century in France. Out of nervousness and self-consciousness she has a habit of prefacing and concluding her remarks with a little breathless laugh. This will be indicated at points, but should be used more freely than indicated."
So writes Tennessee Williams, in an attempt, perhaps, to issue down immortal directions for Alma Winemiller, a pastor's daughter drawn to the sexual flame of young Dr. John Buchanan in Williams' 1948 play "Summer and Smoke."
What is an actress to do with such a set of instructions?
For Christine Lahti, who plays Alma opposite Christopher Reeve's John in Marshall Mason's production opening at the Ahmanson on Thursday, the decision was simple.
"I've ignored all his stage directions," she said, without a hint of regret. But for Lahti, an actress determined to play theater and film roles that interest her--usually individuals with fortitude and internal contradictions--something beyond art has informed her Alma.
"It's impossible for me to do the bit with the breathless laughing. I'm four months pregnant. One day in rehearsal, I tried to do it and I became dizzy. My doctor told me to find another symptom of anxiety for Alma. The baby's oxygen level should not be messed around with."
Then she added quietly, almost as if she were giving away an actor's trick, "I've never seen a production of 'Summer and Smoke,' nor have I seen the film version. I must have done that on purpose, knowing that some day I would play Alma. I didn't want to be influenced. Because of that, I'm sure the Alma I'm creating isn't like any other."
She forked through her lunchtime salad and looked back at her interviewer, wondering if that sounded right--not as in coherent, but as in truthful.
"Marshall won't tolerate dishonesty, and I won't either. I don't think I've ever had a director who was so concerned about that. He'll tell me if he doesn't believe something I'm doing. He's really ruthless about that. But if, as an actress, I'm not telling the truth, it's not alive, and then I might as well go home."
Home, though, is about the last place Lahti will be these days. Once she is at the theater and deep in rehearsal, she says she is loath to break her concentration on the work--one of the reasons she was having a late lunch.
"As you may have noticed," she smiled, "it's like pulling teeth to get me out of rehearsal. My lunch hour is usually spent with the script, learning the lines, digesting the work we did. The work process is what it's all about. It's the most creative time, it's the most frightening time. You don't know what you're going to be doing next."
Mason works through a play scene by scene as written (this is the cut version Mason did at Northwestern University several years ago--eventually the play text approved by the Williams estate), which Lahti feels is an approach that deepens the rapport between actress and director.
"I don't want it laid out. Going for results too early is one of the most dangerous things an actor can do because it strips the play of life. I don't have Alma yet; I don't understand her yet. It puts a little knot in my stomach, but realizing that she has so much depth and complexity, and that it's going to take a long time to get to know someone this intimately--that is what acting is for me."
The relationship with the character has triggered some disturbing notions for Lahti. "I think Alma was either raped or abused by her father as a child. She's frightened of men, of sex and repressed in the way a lot of rape victims are. Her strongest need, I think, is to be respected; her mother never got it, and flipped out. She ends up being both sexual and having the respect she demands in a time (the 1920s) when women were either Madonnas or sex objects.
"John, though, is too intimidated by what Alma is offering him, which is true intimacy, real love. . . ." Her voice trailed off, and she almost laughed, adding, "That's my point of view--I don't know what Chris would say."
Despite her imposing presence--she is tall, with cascading red hair, and exudes confidence--her warm, Midwestern voice and every self-reference, containing a bit of criticism, cuts against a star-seeking personality. ("It's not that I'm not tempted by commercial vehicles; I am, and plagued with indecisiveness about it. I'd love to have bankability, but the trade-off is too big.")