BWW Review: A Thoroughly Reinvented GLASS MENAGERIE Thrills in Sierra Madre
For many, Tennessee Williams' first play The Glass Menagerie remains his finest. Semi-autobiographical, the play takes place in St. Louis during the Depression and depicts the relationships between a restless alcoholic/shoe factory worker/wannabe writer, his overbearing mother and his psychologically deficient sister - all of which stems from Williams' actual background. Williams finds his voice in Tom. (Christian Durso)
Currently onstage at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, Menagerie is directed by artistic director Christian Lebano, who takes a 360 degree turn from a traditional mounting. His is an exciting re-envisioning of the classic. At the top Lebano adds five minutes of silence before Tom ever delivers the opening monologue. With a bouquet of jonquils in his hand, Tom, in 1941, returns to his home in St. Louis, to see what has happened to his mother and sister. He last left them in 1936 when he ran off to join the merchant marine. This is a memory play, after all, and Lebano does well to put Tom in a position of looking around cautiously at the old homestead, seeing the decay and recalling what his former life was like. He moves inside and out of the tenement to soak everything in, sits and drinks, and expresses his feelings of disgust with what he sees. At one point he bolts to the fire escape as if to puke his guts out. The painful memory of his dictatorial mother Amanda (Katherine James) and weak sister Laura (Amanda Muller) is too unbearable. When the monologue is finally delivered and the scene begins, Tom does not enter but rather stays apart looking on as an observer. Amanda and Laura are at the dining room table, and Amanda delivers her "chew, chew, chew your food" to an empty chair as if Tom were actually there. He is still in his pee coat and knitted cap looking in from the outside. Tom does not enter the action of the first scene until his father's exit from the family is alluded to by Amanda and the portrait on the wall behind the dining table is lit for everyone to see. Throughout the play, Lebano has Tom observing the action in this manner whenever he is not a part of the scenes. These changes work beautifully in the context of the play as memory. In fact, as well as adding clarity to the overall theme, it makes for a refreshing change of pace.
As to the basic plot of Menagerie, in 1936, Amanda Wingfield is a tower of Southern strength, pushing her children to become all that they can be, yet keeping them reliant on her, clawing and needling to the point where Tom wants out. He must support his mother and sister with the factory job and is stuck in a rut. Laura is a shy girl with a limp who keeps a glass menagerie as her only source of pleasure apart from an old worn out phonograph collection left to them by their father. Amanda wants a husband for Laura and pesters Tom to bring home a gentleman caller, a possible suitor, as poor Laura is fast becoming an old maid with no prospects.
The beauty of Williams' poetry is the that he creates within the darkly-lit memory play an easy access to reality... and fantasy. There's the shabby tenement in which the Wingfields live as well as their bare-bones wardrobe. Then, there are the dreamlike musical sounds from the old Paradise dance hall across the alley. Tom runs out at night and takes refuge at the movies, sort of like Laura tending to her glass animals. Even Amanda has her flights of fancy as she likes to live and talk about her girlhood with 17 gentleman callers, and bouquets and bouquets of jonquils flooding her home. Who wouldn't want to escape the Depression and find some source of temporary comfort in a harmless pastime, as long as it doesn't waste one's existence?
But, alas for Amanda and Laura, time is running out. The fourth character in the play Jim O'Conner (Ross Philips) brings reality into the family with his visit. His down.home fine looks, good nature and enthusiasm for public speaking and technology make him a man on the up and up. Dissatisfied with the factory. he is trying, unlike Tom, whom he nicknames Shakespeare, to make something successful of his life. He dreams too, but at least attends night classes to help bring about some personal transition. Jim was a classmate of Tom and Laura's in high school. Laura had a crush on him but because of her terrible shyness, could never tell him how she felt. When he comes to dinner and recognizes Laura for who she is, he boosts her self-confidence. Sadly, he is engaged to another, so this 'dinner date' with Laura is the only experience she will have with him.
Director Lebano really takes the fantasy element, the flights of fancy, to new levels. Amanda is more seductive than I have ever seen her played when she is trying to make the Gentleman Caller feel at home. She moves in close to him, puts her hand on his leg, almost as if she were snatching him up for herself. As I said earlier, it is a memory play, so Amanda is remembering her joyful days on Blue Mountain and attempting to relive them. Also, the dance between Jim and Laura - lovingly choreographed by Cate Caplin - is big, bold and theatrically elevating, almost like the dream ballet in Oklahoma! and Carousel. Jim lifts Laura up like a ballerina and she literally soars in his arms. A complete transformation has occurred, and within this short period of time, Laura is taken to new heights of self-confidence. All of this is feasible within the context of illusion and magic. I think Williams would love it!
Under Lebano's superb direction, all the actors flesh out their characters magnificently and find their own breathing space within the confines of the limited scenario. James is marvelous as Amanda, the mother who lived to love her children. She is especially affecting and very funny in her flights of fancy in Act II. Durso is one of the best Toms I have ever seen. Although physically aloof, he is completely emotionally engaged. It is a delight to watch him as he observes Laura's infatuation with Jim. He is proud of her and happy, and Durso makes us feel Tom's loyal connection to his sister. Muller is perfect as Laura, evoking every nuance of self-consciousness and fear. Philips is a real charmer as the Gentleman Caller. He is extremely affable and open, overly polite, with more than a glimmer of ego and self-confidence. One action threw me for a loop. Watch and see what he does with the glass unicorn that Laura has given to him as a souvenir! There's lots of food for thought in this choice. All four actors render model performances; it is indeed a treat to watch them connect as an ensemble.
Erin Walley's wonderful set design evokes the period to perfection. Let's add praise here to lighting designer Pablo Santiago for his dimly lit look throughout that serves the piece to perfection. Joanathan Beard's original music adds a lovely touch. Williams would applaud this Glass Menagerie, because it retains every syllable of his gorgeous poetic language and because of the unforgettable direction and performances. Lebano's vision, which has been in his mind for years, is what makes this production really cook. It is fresh and ultimately thrilling. Don't miss it!
(photo credit: Gina Long)