BWW Review: Upstream Theater's Truly Special THE GLASS MENAGERIE
I've always appreciated live stagings of THE GLASS MENAGERIE far more than the attempts by Hollywood to turn it into a film. They always spoil it by messing with the ending. It's a melancholy slice of playwright Tennessee Williams' life, albeit, one that bears more than a slight resemblance, but which has been fictionalized to a degree. And, you won't find any tacked on "happy ending" here, which is the way I like it. Williams disowned the first film version, and rightly so. It's not meant to be neatly resolved, and that's why it makes an emotional impact. Upstream Theater's current production is brilliantly staged, cast, and directed. I don't think I've seen a finer presentation, or one that was as engaging as this one. I think it's a must-see, even if you've seen the play many, many times before. This is a fresh and lively take that's well worthy of your time and attention, so go already!
The story takes place in St. Louis, in an apartment that is shared by a mother, her son, and her "crippled" daughter (I put that in quotes because it's not a word the mother tolerates when describing her offspring), who were all abandoned by their charming, but shiftless father some time ago. The son, Tom, is an aspiring writer, living a life of drudgery working at a warehouse in a position which he finds especially distasteful. He has dreams of leaving and traveling the world, but he is the main bread winner, so he frustratingly remains. Since his mother is forever haranguing him in regards to the need to bring home a "gentleman caller" for his sister, Laura, Tom finally breaks down and obliges her. His friend from work, Jim, arrives for dinner, but even though he makes a connection with Laura, he's promised to another.
J. Samuel Davis is just amazing as Tom, who narrates this "memory play" as an older version of himself looking back on a night that changed all their lives. Davis palpably conveys the frustration Tom feels at his lot in life, and his anxiousness to get out and actually make something of himself. Linda Kennedy is his overbearing mother, constantly repeating stories from her past, and taking out the anger she feels toward her absentee husband on Tom. Kennedy brings out a lot of the humor that is in the text, but often ignored or altered to make the character more shrew-like by others. It's a terrific performance, and one matched by Sydney Frasure as Laura, her daughter, who seems lost and resigned to her status. Her only escape being old phonograph records, and the precious "glass menagerie" she lovingly tends to. Rounding out the cast nicely is Jason Contini as Jim, who misunderstands the dinner invitation that is meant to introduce him to Laura, even though they went to school together. The interplay between Contini and Frasure is priceless, and reflects Jim's desire to bring Laura out of her self-imposed shell. It's heart-breaking when you realize that this one chance for some modicum of happiness will be fruitless.
Philip Boehm's direction is wonderfully realized, and with a bit of unconventional casting, which I thoroughly applaud and appreciate, it's truly special to witness. Boehm is always able to see classic works with a freshly minted perspective that serves him and his cast very well. Michael Heil's scenic design neatly conjures up the small apartment with style and simplicity, aided by Claudia Horn's period props, as well as the scenic artistry of Cristie Johnson. Laura Hanson provides the period costumes, which define these characters, and Steve Carmichael lights the production in moody shadows that provide plenty of atmosphere. Joe Dreyer provides musical selections that reflect the era, and which are usually played on CD by a sound designer. Having him actually perform live adds still another dimension to this excellent piece of theater.
Upstream Theater's amazing production of THE GLASS MENAGERIE continues through May 15, 2016 at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Don't miss it!
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