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BWW Reviews: EPAC's THE GLASS MENAGERIE Shines Like Its Crystal Figurines

"The scene is memory, and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the article it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart."

That quote of Tennessee Williams' may be the first to come to mind for those who know THE GLASS MENAGERIE and are seeing it at Ephrata Performing Arts Center in the current production directed by Rich Repkoe. Repkoe and set designer Jordan Janota have set the play in an abandoned apartment building that clearly looks abandoned and bleak, rather than in the common 1930's apartment of rosy memory - furniture is upended, covered in dust cloths; dust is on the floor, shattered glass and china lie everywhere. It is utterly realistic - and yet not so, for lighting designer Richard Wolfe-Spenser has bathed it in a rose-pink backdrop, reality competing with cherished, and perhaps not-so-cherished, memories.

The set and the lighting are themselves characters in this production; at first, one might think, obtrusively so, but gradually they not only blend in but make perfect sense, and are fine substitutes for the projections Williams envisioned being used in the play. Rose-pink light, fonder memory, competes with the cold blue light of current thinking and of harsher memory - all those in the mind of narrator Tom Wingfield, played by Tim Riggs with a real charm and with decided physical skill. He goes about preparing to walk the audience through his memories by righting the furniture, uncovering the old Victrola that has its own presence and meaning in the play, and fitting together shards of broken dishes, taking the apartment back, in his memory, to the beginning of the story, and leaving it, at the end, as it was in the beginning - in the wreckage of the last night he saw it, just before storming away. It is a nice piece of physical reconstruction of memory, and Repkoe has done well in staging it. But equally, Riggs plays it perfectly, in total silence, his physical movement conveying his emotions splendidly. Riggs does more with his body in this brief, silent opening than many actors in the area can do with body and voice in an entire show. It's what acting is.

"Time is the longest distance between two places." One of Williams' most famous quotes, it is also the basis much of this play. THE GLASS MENAGERIE is, of course, a memory play, as Wingfield narrates, and acts, as his younger self, through the story of his and his sister's years living with their faded Southern belle of a mother, never living up to her plantation-gentility standards, as who could in a small urban city apartment in the Depression-era North? Are Wingfield's recollections accurate, and does it matter if they are not? They are the bones that build the skeleton of his current life, and if they are not flawless, they are nonetheless real for him, his foundation mythology (and possibly Williams', to a degree).

Amanda Wingfield, mother of Tom and his disabled - "crippled" - sister Laura, is a classic Williams heroine, or is that anti-heroine? (One aches to analyze her alongside Violet Venable, mother of Sebastian, in SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER. Is Mrs. Venable what Amanda would have become had Tom stayed?) She's a faded Southern belle trapped in her past, a past that appears to keep her from moving on and, by extension, traps her children in her past. Yet she's a devoted mother, worried about her children's future, and yes, if Tom's sister Laura doesn't get married, since she's too shy to handle school or work, who is going to support her? But inherent in her devotion is her smothering. Is the smothering why Tom's and Laura's father left, or was it something else? We never learn anything about him, other than that he was charming, may have drunk to excess, and that he worked for the telephone company - and that Tom, on his bad days, appears to take after the deserting wretch, whom his mother still seems to love wholeheartedly when she bothers to think of him. It's a story that fits Freudian textbook standards, especially in light of Williams' own life (you can almost tick off the elements - dominant mother, absent father, etc.). Karyn Reppert fits comfortably and all too realistically into Amanda Wingfield's persona - it's no surprise to realize that she's also played Mama Rose in GYPSY and Elizabeth Proctor in THE CRUCIBLE; she's got a real grip on the great mother bears of theatre.

Megan Baum as Laura Wingfield is the fragile glue that holds this story together. Like her "glass menagerie" of breakable animals, she's both lovely and, indeed, fragile; she is so delicate as to be buffeted by any emotional wind that passes by her, let alone a physical storm. She is the perceptive one, who sees Amanda's personal need to live in her glory days as a heavily-courted belle, and who tries to make Tom understand; she is also the one who sees, as Amanda does not, that Tom needs his own life, not his mother's, and that he's too young and too driven by a need for adventure to be well-adapted to supporting his family already. But she's unable to do anything to help herself. Her collection of glass animals, ready to break at the slightest movement, is the metaphor for Laura herself, and for the family dynamic on stage. Baum brings out Laura's delicacy and her chronic shyness gently, as she allows herself to be drawn out from it briefly in the second act.

Brian Viera, as "gentleman caller" Jim O'Connor, is in a small but vital role, and he plays it well. As Amanda's foil and Laura's would-be therapist cum could-be lover, he becomes for each of them, momentarily, what they need him to be, until the tragic flaw of his engagement to the unseen Betty is revealed. And the true tragedy of that flaw isn't that he can't be the savior for Laura that Amanda wants, but that his feelings for Laura are clearly deeper than those for his fiancée, and that he is unable to deal with that reality. His departure from the Wingfields' apartment beings about the end of the tale, for it's here that Tom's relations with his mother and sister dissolve utterly. And it's here that we walk in, with Tom, on the wreckage of his former home, somewhere in his mind.

It's a lovely production, wonderfully cast, of a classic play. It might have been enhanced with sound, however - Tom Wingfield notes that memory has a musical accompaniment, but where is it here? It could have been used to great effect, in judicious measure. Otherwise, there are few if any faults with this show, and bless Edward Fernandez, EPAC's artistic director and a Tennessee Williams devotee, for making EPAC one of the few theatres in the area to put on Williams' work. Musicals may seem more entertaining to some, but it is the job of theatre to do more than merely amuse.

At Ephrata Performing Arts Center through September 21. You want to see non-musicals, even if you think you don't. See this one. Call 717-733-7966 or visit ephrataperformingartscenter.com for tickets.


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