BWW Review: 4th Wall Theatre Company Presents Polished 'GLASS MENAGERIE'
THE GLASS MENAGERIE is the play that put Tennessee Williams on the map, and it has become one of his most produced scripts for good reason. It is an intensely personal view of his real family - a doting Southern mother and a slightly handicapped sister scraping by in Saint Louis. It is a passion project for co-artistic director Kim Tobin-Lehl, and it gives her the chance to bring to life the iconic character Amanda Wingfield. 4th Wall Theatre Company's production shows a lot of love for Tennessee Williams, and they have thrown a ton of resources behind it. The result is a strikingly handsome production with surprising interpretations of the characters and plenty of eye candy. Director Philip Lehl guides a new vision of most of the characters amidst a technically flawless evening of theater.
It's a "memory play" we are told by its narrator Tom at the top of the show. THE GLASS MENAGERIE simply shows us three people living together in the mind of a young man who felt trapped by them. There is his mother Amanda Wingfield, a fallen debutante who lives in the past to escape the dire present of a house with no father to help her. Tom's sister Laura limps a little bit and is terribly shy which are both things mother and son exaggerate to no end. She too lives in a world of her own design consisting of glass animals that she collects and well worn records she plays incessantly. Tom escapes by writing, drinking, and going to the movies while aching for adventure and a life away from these two who depend on him. During the show Tom arranges for a gentleman caller to come to meet Laura. He is an old high school friend and coworker who Tom is unaware is also a long time crush of his sister's. This meeting proves to be the catalyst for the family to face the fears of what life holds for them, and it breaks them as easily as one of Laura's glass animals is prone to shatter.
Kim Tobin-Lehl plays Amanda Wingfield as a fast talking big dreamer who we can tell loves her children, but she somehow can't escape inflicting her past on their present. She's desperate, and the actress communicates this in Amanda's bird like physicality and her breathless quick paced line delivery that sometimes sputters to indicate where her character is not firing on all cylinders. She's unhinged, but never feels dangerous or unlikeable. It's cute when she puts on an old Southern ball gown for dinner, and you almost forget what a monster Amanda can feel like on the written page. Tobin-Lehl is reinventing this mother through her own lens. It certainly works, and I appreciated the fresh approach. She finds something endearing for us to latch on to rather than walking away pitying or fearing the character.
Tom Wingfield is portrayed by Joe Palmore, a celebrated Houston actor who has been seen in almost any venue you could name including Stages, The Alley, and The Ensemble Theatre. He gives Tom a strong Black Southern Baptist preacher's affect which is in tune with the reinterpretation of the mother character. He is not the meek Tom often portrayed, and he never indicates a shifting sexuality save for in one scene. This is something Tennessee Williams hints at throughout, but Joe avoids making it obvious or even a significant part of the character. He seems more like his absent father must have been than I ever imagined until this production. He is making this part his own, and refocusing Tom's reason to desire being saved.
Noah Alderfer portrays the Gentleman Caller, and he comes in like a sparkling Robert Pattinson smiling in the Twilight. He's got a dangerous grin married to a smooth delivery of his inspirational advice that he spits out to people culled from the public speaking class his character is taking. He is charming and he is suave enough to make us believe Tom, Laura, and Amanda would all fall in love with him. That is exactly what is intended, and so Noah has stayed true to the script and tradition of how to create this role. He's got the bravado down, and that could make his character more tragic when we realize he may not be going anywhere. He's all bluff and bluster with little substance.
Faith Fossett takes Laura Wingfield and brings the character to life exactly as the page interprets her, and delivers new unique traits only she can muster. She's a gorgeous girl, but the way she can scrunch her face and show us the anxiety of Laura is mesmerizing. We believe the trap Laura is in, and the audience aches for her most of all. She's the innocent, and Faith knows how to amplify that as an actress. It's a master class in how to play this type of role. Nothing is exaggerated or feels melodramatic, and the girl in front of us is fully realized and the performance is seamless.
Key to this new vision of THE GLASS MENAGERIE is Ryan McGettigan's jaw dropping set. He delivers a 1937 walk up St. Louis apartment complete with dining and living room beside a fully realized fire escape. All of this is done in a tiny space, and all of it looks amazing just feet from the audience. Christina Giannelli's lighting lives up to the set, and provides mood brilliantly throughout. Peter Ton has designed projections that show Tom's writing coming to life, and also adds dramatic punch to certain scenes. Robert Leslie Meek has captured sound that works as well as the rest of this tech, and puts the bow on this gorgeous gift. Technically this puts 4th Wall up with theater companies with far more resources and space. It's a dazzling presentation.
As the final blackout hit I realized the audience had experienced THE GLASS MENAGERIE almost as a cinematic experience rather than a traditional play. The feel of the performances, the over the top tech, and the way it moved throughout was filmic. In some ways it feels slick, and that's something new when you regard the humble beginnings of this work. 4th Wall has reinvented this classic, and it works mostly. The only thing missing from Philip Lehl's production is it seems to not pack as hard of a gut punch as the show can sometimes because it's all so pretty and perfect. It's a polished GLASS MENAGERIE. Yet certainly it is one worth admiring for its bravery.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE runs at Spring Street Studios through November 2nd. Tickets can be acquired either at www.4thwalltheatreco.com or by calling (832) 767-4991.
Photo taken by Gabriella Nissen.