A Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Glass Menagerie"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Larry Stark

"The Glass Menagerie"

by Tennessee Williams Directed by Eric C. Engel

Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland
Costume Design by Raphael Jaen
Sound Design by Jeremy Wilson
Lighting Design by Scott Pinkney
Assistant Lighting Designer Andy Boucher
Master Electrician Robert Cordetta
Production Manager Skip Curtiss
Assistant Stage Manager Matthew Breton
Production Stage Manager Nerys Powell

Amanda........................Nancy E. Carroll
Tom......................Vincent Ernest Siders
Laura.......................Emily Sophia Knapp
Jim..............................Lewis Wheeler

What can I say about Eric C. Engel's production at The Lyric Stage of this classic play --- that I saw so late in its run! --- except that you have only one week left to be enthralled by what is a whole new play. Every critic in the city long ago stamped the imprint of their snow-boots all over it, and what can I add? They have all given you opinion in the guise of truth; I will try to give you truth in the comfortable guise of opinion.

This self-admitted "memory play" takes place entire in the mind of one person --- a merchant-seaman remembering those days at the end of The Great Depression (1937 -39) when there was a war in Spain, but Americans could only find adventure by sitting in dark movie-houses watching, not participating; when $65 a month kept a family of three alive, and $85 a month was only for Supervisors. Tom Wingfield is participating now --- I see him as on an early-morning watch returning from the deadly Murmansk Run --- but, in the lonely quiet of the night sea, the sharp voice of his mother echoes out of the past, and the events that made him bolt from home flood his mind. Events in his memory, as in dreams, are not as complete as reality --- the only details there are the significant ones he will never forget.

Mother is a tough old bird, adding occasionally to Tom's salary selling magazine subscriptions to friends or demonstrating something at a department store. However no one in this play has been properly equiped to survive in the real world. Amanda clings to the flower-filled illusions of her youth just as, though living in St. Louis squallor, she clings to the deep-south accents of a place and time when women triumphed on charm, and vivacity, and --- well, charm! Domineeringly manipulative, she demands of her two children what they cannot provide without losing their individuality. Tom fights back and fights free; his sister Laura retreats into fantasy and, at least inside, dies.

Laura is more often silent, ashamed of her twisted foot --- probably from polio --- that forced her into a clomping leg-brace through sensitive years in high school. But her flat, unfeeling responses are belied by the little furrows of frightened pain in the center of her forehead. Look into her wide-open, scampering eyes --- and it might be best to sit close enough to do just that --- you can see a vast, passive, black emptiness. She cannot be anything her mother or the world demands, and all she wants is to escape. Hers is into a menagerie of blown-glass animals she endows with lives and personalities, as her brother's is to the sea. She forgets herself enough to smile only twice in this memory-play --- once when a tipsy Tom describes a vaudeville magician he's just seen, and again with the BMOC of their highschool days who comes unexpectedly to dinner.

Jim, Tom insists, is a visitor from The Real World, and a symbol of the practical salvation this family longs for. He is certainly fresh-faced, polite, and he thinks positively about everything. He offers Laura as an antidote to her "inferiority complex" the Public Speaking course that changed His life, and a concentration on the positive beauties he believes he can see in her. He does take her, all too briefly, out of herself, but is not free to be that "Gentleman-Caller" Mother Amanda expects will take her wounded daughter away with him.

Rather than "An Alley in St. Louis" --- the playwright's suggestion --- Janie E. Howland's set is dominated by the fire-escape stairway that Tom lets down into his memories at the beginning of the play. Under it --- with bleak ruins of old tenements suggested by the backdrop --- the Wingfields and their vistor swim out of the shadows of Scott Pinckney's lights, miming coffee-cups and tiny crystal animals, making a dinner-table by throwing a cloth over an entry-platform. When a candelabrum without candles is moved to a living-room, the lights enclose Jim and Laura in a dimly warm glow as they realize they knew one another --- distantly --- in highschool. When someone mentions a moon over the Paradise Ballroom across the way, it's Jeremy Wilson's musical background --- and Tennessee Williams' words --- that bring them dreamily alive.

Director Eric C. Engel has kept this play in Tom Wingfield's mind, adding a small sofa, a magician's scarf, a year-book, and two sticks of gum to his bare-bones props-list. While preparing a trap for a husband, Nancy E. Carroll upstages Emily Sophie Knapp by appearing in a ghost of a late-'20s ball gown provided by Rafael Jaen, who sees to it that young Lewis Wheeler comes to dinner in a dapper Power-Suit from a period when "television" was still only a bright promise on the brink of reality.

Nancy Carroll sets her slippered feet to have it out with Vincent Ernest Siders, who towers over her as Tom. He earns Jim's nickname "Shakespeare" with a fresh awareness of Williams' poetry, and the confrontation of his own frustrated need for More with Carroll's past-obsessed need for $65 a month, or a husband-candidate for Laura. Siders is a restless powerhouse who bends his lines to his own personality, lending a new vigor to this small, realistic tragedy.

If you see this show --- and you should --- come to it with the fresh eyes Engel and his actors (who Become their characters) have. Try before the blackout starting the show to forget what you "know" Must be true of Tennesee Williams' first triumph. Let it burst on your mind as it did when it was a new play. Because that's what it is: a new play. What makes it a classic is that it will, always, be new.


"The Glass Menagerie" (7 January - 5 February)
140 Clarendon Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 437-7172

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