note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Will Stackman
"The Glass Menagerie"
by Tennessee Williams
directed by Michael Wilson
with Elizabeth Ashley, Ann Dudek, Andrew McCarthy, and Willis Sparks
Setting - John Straiges
Costumes - Judith Dolan
Music & Sound- John Gromada
Lights - Howell Binkley
The ritual of "The Glass Menagerie" - a Hartford Stage production - unfolding nightly on Brattle St. through the end of the month may be the best American theatre seen at the Loeb since "How I Learned to Drive", but with a more compelling script. Michael Wilson, Hartford's artistic director, hews closely to William's published text, attempting to balance Tennessee's plethora of symbols with the painful reality of four carefully crafted characterizations, four "disappointed" souls trapped in meager lives. John Straiges' set serves the author's requirements in creating a place of memory not reality, though it might have been wise to enlarge the WWI photo of the family's absent father to compensate for the larger stage at the Loeb. The menagerie itself, placed downstage center, also seemed a bit understated and a little too modern for the faded glamour of the rest of the furnishings.
The press has paid attention to Elizabeth Ashley's Amanda and Andrew McCarthy's Tom, due to their status as multimedia celebrities, but the real revelation of the evening comes when Anne Dudek as Laura and Willis Sparks as Jim, the Gentleman Caller, meet by candlelight, connect, and part. Anne's Laura is less neurotic than usual, more trapped by circumstance. Willis's Jim could show just a bit more desperation as the high school hero facing up to marriage and a future in middle-management, but his gentle encouragement of a passing acquaintance rings true. Ashley's Amanda has all the surface required, but somehow never really gets to the primal fear of real life underneath. On the other hand, McCarthy's Tom is too much confined to interior monologue. His clipped Southern accent suggests much that is kept within, but the person inside needs to break out more often. It is unclear whether or not Tom is replaying or remembering scenes from the past. However, taken as a whole, this ensemble does this American classic proud.
Judith Dolan's costumes capture the past, though omitting Tom's nautical attire might be a mistake. Amanda's "old thing" for the second act was stylistically peculiar enough, but almost too much of a costume. The young belle who wore such an extravagance was not evident. John Gromada's lonesome train sounds began as the audience was being seated, and his musical moments throughout the evening were suitable, though they did not have the odd sense of distorted memory which characterize Paul Bowles' original score. Howell Binkley's lighting shone through varying clouds of artificial mist, which enhanced several scenes, but which may call too much attention to itself. As a metaphor for memory, stage "fog" emphasizes the lights more than what's being lighted. Three-quarter staging involves compromises to manage prop and costumes changes, but stagehands in black wearing wireless headsets become needlessly distracting, even in almost dark. A more stylized approach, particularly in a "memory" play, could be the solution. Having Laura change into deshabille in light was a curious choice; it was unclear whether we were supposed to watch.
For this is a production worth watching. Anyone who has never seen "Menagerie" - there must be a few - will see why this play has lasted. Those seeing it for the first time, like many of the young people in the audience, will understand the power of live theatre, the virtue of language and powerful writing, unobscured by theatrics. Such a production is a powerful argument for a regional theater in boston, unconcerned with University politics and international reputation.