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A CurtainUp Review
The Glass Menagerie
By Elyse Sommer
"His words are a very fantastical banquet. " Shakespeare's line from Much Ado About Nothing sums up the enduring appeal of Tennessee Williams 1944 The Glass Menagerie. The narrator and key player's opening monologue is a just a foretaste to a "fantastical banquet" of richly lyrical language.
That narrator is Tom Wingfield, would-be poet and chief support of his impoverished ex-Southern belle mother Amanda and emotionally and physically crippled sister Laura. To set the scene for us he explains "I turn back time. I reverse it to that quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes failed them, or they had failed their eyes." In one masterful sentence Tom locates the story of his tragic family within the larger context of the late thirties. As Tom explains that what we are about to see is a memory, and that the most realistic character, the "gentleman caller", is "an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from" we are reeled in -- whether for the first time or the fourth or fifth.
The Glass Menagerie may be more than fifty years old and set in a bygone world, but its story of people too fragile to deal with the cruel realities of their lives is timeless. Southern belles and gentleman callers have become cultural allusions, but the struggles of single parenthood are all around us, along with relationships capsized because parents try to set their own disappointments to rights through their children.
And so, even an imperfect production, which for old-timers is practically any without Laurette Taylor or perhaps Julie Harris as Amanda Wingfield, still offers rich rewards. Laura's collection of glass figurines remains a powerful metaphor for fragile and easily broken spirits. By the time Laura's precious unicorn -- and with it the Wingfield family -- breaks, it takes a stone not to choke up over Tom's final monologue.
Which brings us to the current WTF revival. To start with the four actors director Neel Keller has assembed in the order of satisfactions provided takes me to the character who appears on stage last, the much talked about and here-at-last gentleman caller.
In the hands of a less sensitive actor than Tate Donovan the high school over-achiever who now works in the same warehouse from which Tom desperately seeks escape with nightly trips to the movies, could easily be a coarse and carelessly destructive man. Fortunately Donovan's Jim O'Connor, for all his platitudinous extrovertedness, convincingly musters the right degree of awareness of the gentle Laura's inner loveliness. The scene when he and Laura are left alone, without Amanda to manipulate a simple dinner into the impossible dream of a real romance, is The Glass Menagerie at its most magical. You ache for Laura and even the absent Amanda and Tom, even as you root for the likeable Jim's escape from their claustrophobic neediness. Donovan's charisma is so strong that it embraces Jenny Bacon who up to this point is a competent if somewhat derivative Laura (reminiscent of but less impressive than Cherry Jones in The Heiress) Perched on the edge of a kiss, and when handing him the treasured Unicorn she becomes truly luminous.
Dana Ivey's Amanda Wingfield takes a bit of getting used to. She has in the past mined her Southern roots to good effect as a crusty Southern matron (Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo). However, she is much more physically solid, and no-nonsense than our visions (and the playwright's) of Southern Belles with narrow waists and delicate charms that once drew gentleman callers to their verandas as bees to honey. And yet, persuasive actress that she is, once you get used to this more robust Amanda, she captures the role of a woman determined to save her children from the seedy grimness that has become their life. She is eccentric and funny, manipulative yet loving-- and thus lovable. She makes Tom's love and exacerbation with her fully understandable.
Eric Stoltz's portrayal of Tom, like Miss Ivey's Amanda, is also a somewhat gradually achieved triumph. What at first seems a somewhat supercillious manner eventually comes across as the wry, self-defensive humor of the oberver-participant. His cynical, wry humor gradually reveals itself to borne of his frustration with being the unwilling support of a fatherless household, at once loving and resenting his managerial mother and helpless sister.
There is also a fifth character in the WTF production-- a sixth really since as Tom points out there is the ever present photo of the telephone man father "who fell in love with long distance" -- and that's Hugh Landwehr's set, stunningly lit by Rui Rita. It is as true to Tennessee Williams' instructions for the staging as anything I've seen. As stated in the production notes "The scene is memory, and is therefore nonrealistic. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic." If I have any quarrel with this accurate rendering it's that on the Adams Memorial Theater's capacious stage, it's the strict adherence to putting the Wingfield dining room upstage. It call for some modification since, as is, it puts too great a distance between the actors and audience.
Not the least of The Glass Menagerie's relevance stems from its its influence on other theater pieces. The playwright's use of the term "memory play" and the device of a narrator as a bridge to his family reminiscence has seeded a whole genre of similarly structured autobiographical dramas. The best and most reminiscent of Menagerie to come down the theatrical pike in a long time is Side Man by Warren Leight which interestingly re-opened on Broadway, after an Off-Broadway debut (linked at the end) on the same day of the WTF revival of Williams' classic. Thus as I headed for Williamstown, my CurtainUp colleague Les Gutman headed to the Roundabout for his Second Thoughts on my original review. I mention this less for its coincidental interest than as a hopeful sign that good playwriting is by no means a bygone, like the "gentleman caller."