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BWW Reviews: THE GLASS MENAGERIE from Studio Tenn

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Eric Pasto-Crosby's elegant delivery of Tom Wingfield's curtain speech - beautifully staged by director Matt Logan to feature a tableau of nostalgic domesticity, dreams deferred and haunting references to the past - is a completely and compellingly emotional moment that brings Tennessee Williams' beautiful prose to its zenith in The Glass Menagerie.

In a production brought to life by a talented quartet of seasoned players, Studio Tenn's The Glass Menagerie is the perfect tribute to the Southern Gothic playwright, mere weeks before the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1911. Bringing Williams' archetypal and semi-autobiographical play to the stage with style and wit, Studio Tenn rings down the curtain on its inaugural season, scoring yet another artistic hit in the process, following its hugely successful productions of Hello, Dolly! and A Christmas Carol.

As expected, Logan's skilled eye creates the perfect world in which the damaged and world-weary Wingfields play out their dysfunctional family drama, Williams' expertly crafted dialogue maneuvering audiences through a minefield of recrimination and regret, with faint glimmers of hope to buoy us on the journey. Set in St. Louis near the turn of the last century, The Glass Menagerie examines the realities of a life lived in a dreamlike state, casting an unyielding eye on the down-at-heels Wingfield family as each of its members struggles to find his or her footing in a changing society in which gracious living is in mournfully short supply.

Proving the timeless quality of Williams' exquisitely written script and underscoring its relevance are the finely nuanced performances of four of Nashville's most gifted actors. Pasto-Crosby, handsome and broad-shouldered, plays Tom as much more a man of the world and less the milquetoast heretofore seen from other actors. Tom remains a drowsy dreamer, uncertain of what lies ahead, but Pasto-Crosby nonetheless plays him with feet planted firmly on the ground, making his desperation somehow more palpable.

Pasto-Crosby is matched perfectly by Nan Gurley, giving a tour de force performance as Amanda Wingfield, the flighty, smothering, lost-in-the-past harridan of a mother, desperate to ensure her children's future stability while pining for the shadowy memories of her own, far more gracious and illustrious upbringing in East Tennessee and North Mississippi. Gurley's soft, cultured accent alone perfectly captures Amanda's character, but it is her resolute command of the stage that truly creates an Amanda worthy of note. She refuses to play Amanda as a monster, although certainly there are those among us who view her as such, instead imbuing the character with charm and warmth that belies her grasping, somewhat horrifying ways of dealing with the vagaries of life.

There are two scenes in which Gurley truly illuminates her surroundings, delivering a master class for budding actresses in the audience at Belmont University's Black Box Theatre: The first is when she has dressed for dinner with the much-vaunted "Gentleman Caller" and is recalling her heyday as the belle of the ball in the Mississippi Delta. Dressed in a gossamer gown of cream-colored Victorian laces and organdy, she recalls her fondness for jonquils, and her mother's rejoinder that "we've run out of vases." "Then I'll hold some myself," Amanda recalls telling her mother. At that moment, cast in the particularly beautiful golden glow of Stephen Moss' expressive and evocative lighting (as is called for in Williams' script), Gurley strikes a pose that captures Amanda's youthful beauty and exuberance, cloaked in the present of the older woman's reduced station in life. It's a breathtaking moment of beauty and sadness that will tug at your heartstrings and is certain to make you reconsider your preconceived notions of Amanda Wingfield.

The other scene that is noteworthy for its intensity and the sheer desperation that drips like so much sweat on an oppressively hot summer's day in the Delta occurs when Amanda realizes that Tom has invited a boy for dinner who "has strings attached" aka "a girl named Betty." As Amanda rails against Tom, Gurley and Pasto-Crosby deliver a scene that is nothing short of amazing as they pummel one another with their fists, hurling their whole bodies headlong into the fray, the hurtful words of their characters landing like so many punches in the solar plexus of both the older woman desperate for a better life and the son desperate to make his final escape. It's a wondrous moment, full of emotion and spirit, and is as transformative as any moment you've witnessed onstage before.

Ellie Sikes steps tentatively, as Laura should be expected to, onto the stage to share the limelight with the larger than life Amanda and the tortured poet Tom. Sikes' Laura, soft-spoken and reserved, is elegantly understated - again, as called for in Williams' script - playing the role of the spinster sister with a disquieting grace that somehow makes you want to shake her to her senses while, at the same time, comforting and protecting her. It's a fine line she walks in creating a Laura that touches the heart without being overly maudlin or sentimental.

Brent Maddox, without any doubt, is one of Nashville's finest actors and in The Glass Menagerie he plays Jim O'Connor, The Gentleman Caller of the piece, with so much charm and confidence that you cannot help but feel yourself pining for his attentions yourself. He is described by Jim as always running somewhere in high school, epitomizing the golden boy of American secondary school folklore, and Maddox brings him to life with that sense of faded bravado barely simmering beneath the surface, sullied by his own shortcomings and the realities of his own life post-high school superstardom. Maddox's gentle interaction with Laura is sweetly heartfelt, momentarily flooding the tenement in which the Wingfields subsist with unrestrained hope.

Logan's cast is superb, as is his direction of the piece, which moves langorously toward its expected, yet somehow surprising (thanks to how those pivotal moments are staged), denouement. Yet, as good as they are, I cannot help but wonder how the piece would play out if Maddox were cast as Tom and Pasto-Crosby as The Gentleman Caller.

Logan's open design for The Glass Menagerie provides the ethereal setting for the piece and his costuming is lovely, particularly Laura and Amanda's dinner dresses and the clothes worn by Tom and Jim throughout. However, his attention to detail - usually so dependable - falls short in one particular scene: When Amanda storms home after the fiasco at Rubicam's Business College, she is not wearing gloves or a hat, which seems very wrong for the character. I cannot imagine Amanda Wingfield setting foot outside her apartment without, at least, those accoutrements of the gracious lady of the world.

- The Glass Menagerie. By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Matt Logan. Presented by Studio Tenn, at the Black Box Theatre at the Troutt Theatre Complex at Belmont University, Nashville. Through February 26. For details, visit the company website at www.studiotenn.com.


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