The Glass Menagerie
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Derek Goldman
Featuring Sarah Marshall
The Glass Menagerie Project
Georgetown University and Arena Stage
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington DC
June 9, 2011 — July 3, 2011
production web site: http://tinyurl.com/3dhw3fe
Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 29, 2011
The Wingfield family haunts the American imagination. Every production since the 1944 Chicago engagement that proceeded to Broadway and raised Laurette Taylor and the play itself into the stuff of legend carries the burden and promise of gossamer story-telling. In the words of the play’s Chicago-based champion who famously may have kept the play alive on the road (and perhaps, according to some accounts, kept the then-frustrated playwright Tennessee Williams himself in the play writing game through this encouragement), the play “turned the Civic theater into a place of steadily increasing enchantment” as “a dream in the dusk and a tough little play that knows people and how they tick”. (Claudia Cassidy, “Fragile Drama Holds Theater in Tight Spell”, Chicago Daily Tribune December 27, 1944.). This play remains fragile stuff that requires a delicately woven pastiche of characterizations and interactions among the four characters. And in this beautifully staged production (projection and set design are delightful) all of the performances have significant challenges, and some musical choices are wrong for the time of the play — all of which take a viewer out of the delicate inner workings of the world of this story. You have to believe the characters, you have to believe the interactions, you have to feel sympathy for each, you have to care.
This play is Tom Wingfield’s (Clark Young) memory of mother Amanda (Sarah Marshall), sister Laura (Rachel Caywood) and a Gentleman Caller (Michael Mitchell) and events that take place over several days in a St. Louis apartment in the late 1930s. (One character references a visit a few years before the action of the play to the Chicago “Century of Progress” world’s fair 1933-1934.) Tom wants to leave the back alley apartment he shares with his mother and sister, as sole breadwinner. Father was a telephone man who “fell in love with long distance” and abandoned the family years before. Mother lives in her memories and has romantic and unrealistic hopes for daughter Laura who is disabled physically and perhaps otherwise. We hear of leg braces worn in adolescence and self-consciousness that may have contributed to her leaving high school several years before. Everyone is damaged in some way — Tom yearning to leave town and his dead-end job in a warehouse, mother making do with little and living in her own past while wishing the best for her children, and Laura afraid of the world outside her assembly of glass animal figures. Into this world sweeps a work colleague of Tom’s, Jim the Gentleman Caller, who was a classmate of Laura’s and who has more ties on him than anyone in the Wingfield family suspects. The play begins with Tom setting up the memory and ends with Tom leaving to begin his life as a seaman.
Tom is portrayed here as bellowing anger — hysterical gravely frustration with no way in for an audience member. Laura is monotonic and delicate, yet the actress is distract-able and follows the action of others on stage at times, pulling focus, taking her (and us) out of her character. Mother Amanda is played as timid and sad rather than charming and full, even when telling the stories of her many gentleman callers. And the two telephone magazine sales calls Amanda makes, that can be devastating and gut wrenching in some productions, come off here as plays for humor. We don’t feel Amanda’s desperation to sell to survive. And most disturbing, Jim the gentleman caller is played as snazzy finger popping good-looking charm — lovely to look at but not at all appealing as a character. We want to feel for Laura, want to have a tiny bit of hope that she might have a chance with the visitor. When he reports that he is actually engaged to another woman toward the end of his visit, we can only feel relief for Laura. An unfortunate youthful performance of a gentle and essential cog in this gentle story.
Set design by Robbie Hayes evokes shards of a simple few rooms, separated by a filmy curtain, brilliantly incorporating metal grating as a walkway down stage and along the side, creating the sound of a modern fire escape. (First dramatugical question to self: were there metal fire escapes in 1930s St. Louis or would these walkways and backporches have been wooden?) Video/Imagery Designer Jared Mezzochi creates shadow and light and pre-show movement and transitional delights. Sound Designer/Composer Matthew M. Nielson selects perhaps a bit too broadly across the Big Band era, including tunes crafted some years after the time period of our play at certain transition moments (e.g. “String of Pearls” is prominent at one point and that tune is from 1942).
This production’s unevenness of tone belittles each of the pieces, performance wise. I had this same reaction to a differently challenging Roundabout-Longwharf production about a year ago. Keep to the characters, be clear about intentions, keep the tone in balance, and Tennessee Williams will tell the story. Just tell the story.
© Martha Wade Steketee (July 2, 2011)