Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Glass Menagerie"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


by Tennessee Williams
directed by Eric C. Engel

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

The New York theatre scene is so rich, so diverse, that it is possible to attend several plays a week for a year and never see the same actor, twice. Boston is more communal --- the city as repertory company --- and with regular theatergoing one can, in time, evaluate many of her artists as artists. In the past I have scribbled that Mr. “A” needs a heartbeat, Ms. “B” must reclaim her natural sunshine, etc. but now I focus on Nancy E. Carroll and Vincent Ernest Siders, two acclaimed actors who have taken on Amanda and Tom, mother and son, in Tennessee Williams’ THE GLASS MENAGERIE at the Lyric Stage.

Mr. Williams wrote a tender memory-play based on himself, his mother and his sister and should Amanda be played as a nag, the evening turns into soap opera. The key to her character lies in Laurette Taylor who created the role: Ms. Taylor was a celebrated comedienne in her day, especially in PEG O’ MY HEART by her husband J. Hartley Manners (her studio recording, made late in life, reveals a still-girlish timbre); when Mr. Manners died, Ms. Taylor hit rock bottom, a confirmed alcoholic, but she came back with an Amanda, poised between laughter and tears, that is still cited as a zenith in the American theatre. Had she not died during the run, Ms. Taylor, no doubt, would have preserved her performance on film as a yardstick for future actresses, alongside Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski --- instead, Gertrude Lawrence was substituted for the rarely-seen 1950 film version, reportedly the worst adaptation of a Williams play, ever, complete with a happy ending for Laura, the shy, crippled daughter. Perhaps the closest we can get to Ms. Taylor’s swansong is Giuletta Masina’s equally acclaimed Gelsomina in Fellini’s LA STRADA; another happy-sad little clown who smiles though her heart is breaking.

I applaud Ms. Carroll for her impressive string of performances these past few years but now she stumbles as Amanda. Ms. Carroll is a modern-day tragedienne who can be as stark and as stoic as a barren tree in winter and her sense of comedy is on the sour side; when she does lighten, she cautiously smiles as if it costs her dearly. There are moments when Ms. Carroll and Amanda are one: the meek little “Bless you” at the sudden miracle of a re-subscriber or when her high spirits evaporate like mist upon hearing the Gentleman Caller is already engaged. But Ms. Carroll bears down hard on the role as a tenement Madame LaFarge, forgetting the former belle addicted to dancing and jonquils (the Act Two entrance in the old party dress is stillborn); her Amanda is calculating, even vengeful, with the Southern-isms mere ploys to get around others (how moving Ms. Carroll would have been had she given the impression that Amanda’s husband left while still in love with her rather than fleeing for his life). Yes, Ms. Carroll has stumbled but she has not fallen; she should continue to take risks, as all artists must do --- at the very least she will add new colors to her palette and perhaps win new applause.

Twice I have seen Vincent Ernest Siders play bad boys and reap his own acclaim. Had director Eric C. Engel cast him as Tom simply to shake up an old warhorse or because black actors are supposed to know how to express pain better than anyone, his decision would have condescended to both races. Happily, Mr. Sider is not passed off as the son of an interracial marriage but, rather, has been given a chance to widen his repertoire and I soon went color-blind and looked below the surface for insights but few are to be found as Mr. Siders, for the present, works with his own limited palette --- ironically, his high, nasal mumblings falls Brando-esque on the ear --- and his scaling down his natural exuberance renders his Tom dull and polite (his sparring with Ms. Carroll in the interrogation of the Gentleman Caller, though, is full of dry, jazzy humor) --- perhaps Mr. Siders has assumed that to play “white” means to play neutral which is not the case at all. To be “white” (and here I refer to men, not women) means to have grown up with society telling you “YES” from Day One; if white males do seem neutral it is because they take their freedoms for granted, i.e., the world is theirs, wherever they go. On the other hand, should a white actor be cast as Walter Lee in A RAISIN IN THE SUN, he would be wise not to merely lapse into “black” mannerisms but to play the role as one who has been told “NO” once too often --- a role not unlike the defeated Tom Wingfield but, oh, there’s a difference (to quote Dick Gregory, white men carry buckets to the well; black men carry thimbles).

Emily Knapp is a fascinating Laura, sturdy and unsentimental, a young woman who has watched life pass her by but hasn’t missed a trick though I question Ms. Knapp’s walking on her right ankle with her foot turned inward to suggest Laura’s handicap --- I always assumed since Laura once wore a brace that her leg diminished in time, causing her to limp; here, Jim seems to be dancing with a polio victim. Though his physique is hardly that of a former athlete, Lewis Wheeler is at the right time and place in his career to play a conventional Gentleman Caller: both are good-looking, friendly and full of ambition.

Janie E. Howland’s stylized staircases and fire escapes seem all too familiar as many mood plays and their abstract settings have come and gone since Mr. Williams’ day, and aside from a silly fantasy-sequence where Tom and Laura dance together to swing music en route to her typewriter and one brilliant little throwaway moment (see below), Mr. Engel settles for a routine production that abounds in echoes but is meager in magic --- the evening has a disjointed, cutting-edge feel to it; Amanda and Laura aren’t even allowed to look pretty for their Big Night but retain the same pudding-plain hairstyles --- and Mr. Engel goes fifty-fifty on the props: thus, Laura’s yearbook and Tom’s magician’s scarf are in place but the father’s photograph, the victrola and, of all things, the glass menagerie are invisible; when Laura hands Jim the now-hornless unicorn, a lot of trust in her audience goes along with it. Said brilliant moment happens when Amanda comes home scandalized by Laura’s dropping out of business school: Ms. Carroll enters from above and descends the fire escape, pausing on the landing which also doubles as a table at which Laura sits, typing. It is a moment of cinematic eloquence --- a montage of inside and outside the apartment --- that I wish could have been continued, throughout (i.e. a blending of Tom’s memory-images); as it stands now, Mr. Engel’s production, drifting in its void, makes the intimate Lyric space seem as vast as a night at the Huntington. But it was good to hear Mr. Williams’ dialogue again which proves, here, that it is still delicate and special but also indestructible.

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

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide