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The Glass Menagerie
By Dolores W. Gregory
The final installment in The Kennedy Center's Tennessee Williams Explored Festival is a (mostly) reverent staging of the masterful The Glass Menagerie, and under Gregory Mosher's direction, this production achieves what earlier festival entries did not---a perfectly balanced ensemble whose leading light illuminates, rather than eclipses, the talents of her fellow castmates.
Owing to some odd casting of principal roles, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had devolved into star vehicles for Patricia Clarkson, as Blanche DuBois, and George Grizzard, as Big Daddy. But in The Glass Menagerie as Mosher directs it is a case study in ensemble acting. Yes, two-time Academy Award-winner Sally Field is clearly the star hired to lure audiences, but there is nothing at all self-centered about her performance, which is one of four strong parts in a solid quartet.
Field is a revelation as Amanda Wingfield, the aging belle whose aspirations for her children exceed their abilities to satisfy them. Whereas Amanda is often played as a distant cousin to Blanche---a fading flower dangerously absorbed in her own fantasies---Field offers an Amanda who is far more grounded and determined. And the resolve with which Field pursues her aims runs through the play as a poignant undercurrent to the frailty of Jennifer Dundas' Laura, the cynicism of Jason Butler Harner's Tom and the can-do optimism of Corey Brill's Gentleman Caller. At times, Field is downright funny (her braying flirtation with Brill in the second act is a case in point).
If this steely survivor of abandonment and disappointment escapes into nostalgia---and there is no question Amanda is out of touch with the times---she is not at all pathetic. Her reminiscences about her glory days in the Delta seem comforting, but no more pathological than her daughter Laura's preoccupation with a collection of glass animals or her son Tom's nightly forays to"the movies"----that is, the bars and brothels of Depression-era St. Louis.
Faced with a 24-year-old daughter who is too shy to earn a business degree, Amanda concocts a practical strategy for survival---she will marry Laura off to some nice young man, and she coerces Tom into supporting the scheme by inviting a friend home for supper. Given the family circumstances---abandoned by husband and father, living off the son's thin wages from a job at a shoe warehouse---the plan seems downright practical.
Mosher directs it all with an even hand, mining the comedy organically from small moments---the incongruity of Amanda's plantation-era wardrobe in the drab apartment, the look on Tom's face when he inspects his mother's attempt at redecorating. Mosher contains the family story within John Lee Beatty's detailed box set, which evokes dismal circumstances without itself being dreary. True, the sepia tones might be overplayed a bit, but as Williams wryly, observes, this is a memory play, and if "in memory, everything seems to happen to music," perhaps in memory, everything seems to play out against brown wallpaper as well.
The only misstep in Mosher's direction is an unfortunate choice to use an oversize picture frame as the locus for a slide show. The frame houses the image of the absent father (an image called for in Williams' text), but Mosher interchanges the photograph with a series of pictures meant to illustrate various speeches----photographs of soldiers, shifting portraits of Amanda's past suitors. This device is evidently a nod in the playwright's direction; Williams originally had wanted a series of words and images to be projected on the dining room wall throughout the play. The original production dropped this notion and few productions since have attempted it for the obvious reason that the device is downright distracting.
Mosher directs it is a case study in ensemble acting. Yes, two-time Academy Award-winner Sally Field is clearly the star hired to lure audiences, but there is nothing at all self-centered about her performance, however, Mosher makes no effort to innovate. He is happily untempted to redefine any of these characters (as Garry Hynes was apparently tempted to redefine Stanley Kowalski as a boyish man with a high-pitched voice and utterly unsexual presence---to the detriment of Streetcar). Since The Glass Menagerie opened in 1944, Williams' characters have evolved into archetypes: the shy girl, the dissatisfied brother, the dream-peddler at the door, whose promise of lifelong happiness cannot possibly be kept. To attempt to remake them in light of contemporary sensibilities would have been a mistake. This play, which established Williams as a major American playwright is also his most enduring because it addresses unchanging truths about family. Sixty years later, with the Great Depression and World War II the stuff of faded family photographs, mothers and children everywhere continue to live out the same patterns of expectation, disappointment, and resentment.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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