"The Glass Menagerie" A Theater Mirror Review

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entire contents copyright © 1996 The Theater Mirror & Lucie N. Patrowicz

"The Glass Menagerie"

A Review by Lucie N. Patrowicz

The Glass Menagerie
by Tennessee Williams

Friday & Saturday, April 5th through April 20th at 8 pm
Sunday, April 14th at 3 pm

Cast
Gentleman Caller..............................Doug Brandt
Tom Wingfield..................................John Carozza
Laura Wingfield.................................Nicole Jesson
Amanda Wingfield.............................Lynne Moulton

Director.............................................Barbara Fulchino
Stage Manager...................................Colleen Hoffman
Scenic Design & Construction...........Rob Rohner
Lighting Design.................................Doug O'Keefe

In the soft light of this Delvena Theatre Company production, Tennessee Williams's "The Glass Menagerie" glows. Warm-blooded performances radiate the poetry and genius of Williams's writing. Under Barbara Fulchino's direction, Lynne Moulton's cast recreates a theatrical gem in the bare-bones space of Salem's Old Town Hall. Like the beauty the play's characters find in their commonplace lives, it's a delicate flower in an untended yard -- an unexpected but natural delight.

Tom, the story's narrator and one of its main characters, presents a tale that is part history, part fancy -- experience viewed through the filter of memory. As the play opens, Tom, dressed in the wool cap and pea coat of a merchant seaman, stands lighting a cigarette in the shadows. Like Rod Serling introducing an episode from "The Twilight Zone," he addresses the audience directly. This play, he warns, involves a family of characters whose eyes have failed them, or who have failed their eyes. As the play unfolds, its characters demonstrate that they are indeed out of touch with reality, and equally incapable of living up to their individual ideals.

One set serves for the entire play. Props are simple: a Victorian couch, a manual typewriter, an old Victrola. In the center of the room, on the lower level, is a round, two-tiered end table displaying the small glass objects that make up daughter Laura's menagerie. Up one level and to the left is a dining room table and wooden chairs. No other rooms are visible, just a hallway area with a coat rack, leading to a door which opens up to a balcony--presumably a fire escape--from which characters can look up to the moon, or over to the dance hall across the alley.

Reality isn't kind. The senior Mr. Wingfield has walked out on the family, leaving it to make do during the Great Depression without his emotional or financial support. But a photo of father as a handsome youth still adorns the wall, preserved along with his last communication to his loved ones, a terse "hello, goodbye" postcard. Although abandoned and suffering classic symptoms of rejection -- feelings of inadequacy and lack of direction among them -- the family isn't consumed by anger. Father isn't a low-life, deadbeat dad, but "a telephone man who fell in love with long distance." The amusing phrase doesn't conjure a selfish oaf who'd abandon a helpless brood, but a man with a common human weakness -- an inability to reconcile his dreams with his responsibilities.

Although father appears to preside over the dining room table in absentia, via his portrait, mother calls the shots. Lynne Moulton's Amanda Wingfield--adorned with pearls and hair pinned in a bun--fights with stubborn determination to maintain a sense of refinement in impoverished circumstances. Raised in affluence and courted by a bevy of southern gentlemen, she lives to recreate the gentility of her youth. But under her lacy glove lies the iron hand of a southern matriarch.

A controlling mother with a penchant for micromanagement, Amanda is continually frustrated by attempts to enforce standards that her adult children won' t -- or can't -- live up to. Screaming "Chew! Chew!" across the breakfast table, she commands Tom to move his jaws in accordance with her will: No son of hers will gulp his food. "Resume your seat!" she yells at Laura, "You are not excused from the table!"

Despite her flaws, Amanda is a resourceful woman. A telemarketing pioneer, she pitches magazine subscriptions to friends and acquaintances, sacrificiing pride to pay the rent. The family must muster its forces--build itself up, she says--if it is to survive in trying times. Battling the demon inertia and all outward signs of laxity, she exhorts her children to reach higher.

Chastising them with one breath, she makes light of their shortcomings in another--perhaps to fool herself as much as them. But her deceptions don't deceive, and sometimes the approach is cruel. "You must keep yourself pretty for our gentlemen callers," Amanda tells Laura. The girl has never had callers, but no matter. "They come when they're least expected," Amanda says. Mother also refuses to acknowledge Laura's pronounced limp. She isn't crippled, but has a "slight affect."

Nicole Jesson's Laura Wingfield has all the gawky grace of an overgrown child. Hair parted in the middle and braided, and wearing black lace-up shoes and ankle socks, Laura is far from the fetching debutante of her mother's dreams. Uncomfortably awkward in her big-boned body, she appears to fold into herself, cringing like a puppy dreading the inevitable scolding. A bundle of neuroses. Again and again she presses a palm against tendons at the back of her neck -- as if to stem anxiety flowing like blood from a severed artery -- or vigorously rubs a finger under her nose.

Like her glass treasures, Laura isn't particularly good for anything but gathering dust. Ostensibly enrolled in business college, she has been secretly wandering the streets, walking to keep warm in the winter, frequenting gardens in the spring. Undone by the pressures of learning to type -- and take speed tests -- she quit the college a few days into the course. Discovering her daughter's deception, Amanda is appalled. "I was under the impression you were an adult," she tells the woman she has always babied.

While her mother is nourished by dreams of the past, Laura loses herself in her own vision of beauty, listening to music on the Victrola whenever she can and tending the creatures in her menagerie. In addition, she cherishes the memory of a high-school crush, a boy she barely knew but who called her "blue roses" after she came down with "pleurosis," inadvertently transforming the sickly young girl into something of rare beauty. Like the lone unicorn amid her collection of glass horses, the awkward, crippled girl is made to feel special--not a freak, but a treasure.

Tom, Laura's brother, is a writer frustrated by the demands of an enervating factory job and his mother's suffocating attentions. But John Carozza's Woody Allen voice and mannerisms project a wry sense of humor. With a writer's ability to sit back and observe, Tom -- unlike other family members -- is able to look at the family situation with some detachment.

Some of the funniest and most powerful scenes in the play occur when mother and son clash. Amanda clings vociferously to her refined sensibilities and genteel airs. Tom, the writer, cuts through her euphemisms to tell it like it is. Given his mother's distaste for anything coarse, it's easy to pull her leg, feigning an exaggerated lack of civility. The comic dynamic between the two actors is electric.

Although she demands the best from her son, Amanda fears that he is taking on his father's vices -- namely, a taste for drink and late-night carousing -- and doesn't believe him when he claims to frequent midnight movies. Along with the pressure of being watched (lest any of his father's frailties grow in him undetected), Tom must live with the sadness and guilt of knowing that he will ultimately succumb to his own inability to pursue his dreams in the bosom of his family, leaving them in spite, or because, of his love.

The prospect of hosting a gentleman caller to dinner -- a friend of Tom's from the factory -- throws the household into a state of frenetic activity. Laura dresses up for the occasion. With her hair down and a new dress, she looks pretty for the first time. All's well until moments before the caller's arrival, when Laura discovers that he is the same "Jim" she remembers from high school: Jim of the blue roses.

Doug Brandt's Jim is an engaging every-day guy, conspicuously normal in the Wingfield family setting. All sincerity and positive thinking, Brandt is entirely convincing.

Throughout the play, O'Keefe's lighting design guides the audience's focus, informing their vision as surely as the narrator's words. When Jim and Laura finally get together, they are bathed in the soft yellow light of a candelabra. Sitting on the floor in this light, Laura's beauty -- shrinking in the brightness of day -- is fully revealed, suggesting another truth: That in the rough core of every human soul lies a facet that will reflect light. That a human being is not a black hole, but a diamond.

-----Lucie Patrowicz

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide


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