There’s never any guarantee that your children will end up being anything like you; that’s the lesson Amanda Wingfield just can’t wrap her head around (much to her chagrin) in Tennessee Williams’ classic, The Glass Menagerie, currently being presented in quite a fine production by The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton.
The great Tennessee Williams had his first success when The Glass Menagerie premiered in Chicago in 1944, landing on Broadway in 1945 and running nearly a year and a half in an era when a hit play meant a run of only half as long. It has been revived on Broadway six times to date (once a decade since the 1960s), adapted for film in 1950 and 1987, and was produced for television starring the great Katharine Hepburn in 1973; still, this is a piece that works best live.
The Glass Menagerie takes place in a Chicago tenement circa the 1940s and is about Amanda Wingfield, a former Southern belle living with her two adult children: Tom, a restless warehouse worker who wants to leave for the navy; and Laura, a powerfully shy introvert with an emotionally crippling limp. Amanda talks of the days when she entertained seventeen gentlemen callers all at once, and by all accounts she was as popular in her heyday as her offspring now are not. Knowing that her days of having Tom be the breadwinner for the family are limited, Amanda sets her sights on Laura, plotting to have her marry well; but poor Laura is so withdrawn and meek that she grows ill at the thought of speaking to someone outside of her family, and she has no friends, let alone any prospects for a husband. None of that deters Amanda though as she pressures Tom to bring home his buddy Jim from the warehouse to be a “gentleman caller” for his sister, forcing Laura to face the prospect of having to entertain him alone when her usual hobbies include such solitary pastimes as playing with her collection of glass animals and listening to old records.
Amanda Wingfield is one of those powerhouse roles that actresses have to earn the privilege to play; any production of The Glass Menagerie is only as good as its Amanda. Thankfully, Jennifer Joplin is on hand to be stern, charming, manipulative, pushy – you name it, and Ms. Joplin can do it. Scott Hunt is her son, Tom, playing the part with an edge that makes it hard for me to believe that he would put up with Amanda’s shenanigans; still, Mr. Hunt’s quiet moments with Laura, played by Claire Kennedy, are heartfelt and caring, as they both seem to be victims of their mother’s stifling persona.
As Laura, Ms. Kennedy reacts like a taunted and tortured animal, too afraid to confront her mother (or anyone for that matter) but also too timid to run away. It would take someone as magnanimous and handsome as Jim, played winningly by Drew Vidal, to reach Laura where she is; and that Mr. Vidal does, almost too good to be true and completely accepting of Laura’s handicaps. Their chemistry only makes the denouement that much more heart-wrenching and effective.
The Glass Menagerie is one of those seminal works for which there will always be a place in modern theatre, and Greg Hellems’ direction thankfully shies away from too being delicate and precious, a criticism I often have when I see subpar productions of Williams’ work. No moment is wasted in this staging, but it also doesn’t feel rushed. Eric Barker’s set looks suitably antique in appearance with lace and embroidered seat coverings evoking The South to which Amanda refers so fondly; there are even thick navy velvet curtains framing the living room of the Wingfield apartment that look as if Scarlet O’Hara might at any moment appear to make a gown out of them. The set is on a platform that reveals a steady collection of odds and ends scattered about beneath it, like playthings from a forgotten childhood. John Rensel’s lighting casts a slight pink glow over the proceedings, as if we are all looking at the past through rose-colored glasses, and Laura’s glass collection glows with green light as if illuminated from within, looking as magical to us as it surely does to Laura.
Any person who has had a rather domineering mother (most of us, I’m sure) can relate to how Amanda’s children feel in this play, and it’s that feeling of not wanting to disappoint but also not being able to rise up to meet expectations that rings true. The scenes where Amanda prods at Laura are uncomfortable, like witnessing someone harshly disciplining their child on the playground knowing full well that there is a better way to handle the situation. Seeing how Laura begins to come out of her shell when Jim breaks through is as touching as the realization that the moment is short-lived is devastating; all of the build-up to the gentleman caller’s visit brought to my mind poor Carrie White from Brian De Palma’s film of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976), waiting to attend the prom only to have it turn out to be a disaster.
The one element of this production that proves to be distracting is the music by Jay Brunner that bridges scenes; it is discordant, sounding as if two unrelated compositions are being played on top of each other, and it sounds highly unnatural and out-of-place. Any tension created by Ms. Joplin is shattered every time a new cue starts, though I’m sure there is some well-intentioned meaning behind using such music; it’s lost on me though, as it sounded more like musicians warming up than actual music.
The Glass Menagerie is heartbreaking, and The Human Race Theatre Company does right by the material with some really special performances and a striking set. It’s unfortunate that a professional production like this is saddled with such inappropriate music at scene breaks, but even that isn’t enough to derail this otherwise admirable effort. See this one even if you’ve seen it before; they just don’t write and perform them like they used to, but this is the rare production that is the exception to the rule.
*** 1/2 out of ****
The Glass Menagerie continues through to February 21st in The Loft Theatre at 126 North Main Street in downtown Dayton (just over an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://humanracetheatre.org/1516/glass-menagerie/index.php