BWW Review: THE GLASS MENAGERIE at Nebraska Repertory Theatre is Classic and Memorable
It is refreshing to see Tennessee Williams' brilliant work, THE GLASS MENAGERIE, on a Contemporary Stage in its purest form. Nebraska Repertory Theatre has succeeded in etching this classic gem into my brain where it lingers with a hint of sadness but also of beauty.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE is the "memory play" that launched Tennessee Williams into the spotlight. It won a Drama Critic's Circle Award in 1945, and went on to garner further awards in several subsequent Broadway revivals, the most recent being in 2017. That one led to controversy given the director's artistic take and casting choices. There have also been two Hollywood films produced, as well as adaptations for radio and television. This is a play that may not be forgotten.
The story is a semi-autobiographical account of Tennessee Williams' life with his mother and sister. Amanda Wingfield is the mother who suffocates her son Tom and daughter Laura with simultaneous devotion and pressure on them to do better. Because Amanda was abandoned by her husband and left to raise her children on her own, she has been ripped away from her dreams of a genteel life. Tom, a wannabe poet tagged with the nickname "Shakespeare" in high school, toils in a shoe warehouse during the day and haunts the movie theaters at night. Excessively shy Laura walks with a slight limp, but she suffers from psychological rather than physical impairment.
Tom (Ben Page) begins as narrator dressed in a black peacoat and watch cap. He tells us that this a memory play. "I bring you truth in the pleasant guise of illusion," he says. The play comes with much poetic license. Everything happens with music and dimmed lights. Therefore, the sound designer (Jordan Taylor Thomas) and lighting designer (Adam Jezl-Sikorski) have to be at the top of their game. They more than succeed.
Throughout the play there are references to reality versus illusion. Amanda (Donna Steele) calls Tom a "selfish dreamer" who manufactures illusions. Yet she dwells in vainglorious memories of gentlemen callers bringing her jonquils and appreciating her art of conversation. Laura (Kami Cooper) escapes into her private world where she plays her father's beloved music on an old Victrola, and prefers the company of her fragile glass animals to people outside of her family. Her favorite, a unicorn, perfectly symbolizes her love of the imaginary and when it is broken, she gives it away as if thrusting reality from herself. Tom spends each evening at the movies where he watches Hollywood actors engage in all the adventures he wishes he could have. He expresses amazement at a magician who is able to escape from a coffin without removing a single nail. Tom secretly plans to escape his own personal coffin and join the Merchant Marines. But he must do it without harming a single family member.
When Amanda finds out Laura has not been going to business school, she worries about who will care for Laura if she has no means to support herself. She begs Tom to bring home a gentleman caller from The Warehouse. She encourages Laura to pad the bodice of her dress with "gay deceivers," another apt symbol for the deception that has the family in its grip.
The gentleman caller, Jim O'Connor (Michael Zavodny), brings a shot of realism into this house of mirrors. A former star in his high school, he calls upon his former charisma to draw out the reclusive Laura, but ends up being the unintentional catalyst for more misery.
The play takes place in one of the most intriguing sets I've seen. Scenic Designer Grayson McCown alludes to the Merchant Marines with an impressive configuration of machinery, barrels being lifted and lowered, a whistle that blows and emits a cloud of steam, and a set of escape ladders that cleverly transition the action to the apartment where the Wingfields live. On the opposite side of the stage is a very simple domestic arrangement of apartment furniture. The house consists of jagged lines and cutouts, suggesting that all is not as it should be.
Set pieces are moved smoothly in and out as the story progresses. But at one point, the lights are dimmed during a thunder storm and the black clothing clad backstage crew move the set pieces in a violent, deliberately aggressive series of movements. The calm serenity of the apartment is torn apart. It is highly charged and dramatic.
Nebraska Repertory Theatre does justice to this masterpiece. Everything is beautifully crafted, from the visual to the auditory to the polished performances of four very fine actors and actresses. I can honestly say that this is one of the best theatrical productions I've seen in the Omaha/Lincoln area. Well done to Director Andy Park and his marvelous cast and crew!