Before I say anything about Maplewood Playhouse’s production of The Glass Menagerie, which opened last night at the small Delray Beach theatre usually occupied by Improv U, I suppose it’s my duty to preface this review with the fact that
- I got approximately 2 hours of sleep last night and
- I am categorically incapable of being at all objective, given that The Glass Menagerie is the play I usually name as my favorite of all time.
Additionally, the fact that I’ve also performed in a production of The Glass Menagerie (as Amanda, undergrad theatre troupe, lonnnng story…) made the experience of revisiting it somewhat surreal. Fittingly enough for a play that is referred to by its narrator Tom as a “memory play” in its opening monologue, the phenomenal set by Rebecca Loveless of Tradition Tattoo instantly sent me into a tailspin of nostalgic recollections the moment I walked into the theatre.
The blue roses that framed the stage, a reference to a memorable nickname of Laura’s that gives the play one of its most touching moments, gave a nod to the play’s impressionistic nature, and to the fact that what we are seeing is not intended to be lived experience but Tom’s overly poetic recollection of that experience, an offering from his dreamy, interior world where “everything seems to happen to music.”
Because of my familiarity with the show, there were some bizarre moments where I laughed before the punchlines of some of the play’s jokes because I knew they were coming or perceived the fact that some dialogue was just a little bit off from what I remembered, though there were also a few line stumbles that were noticeable enough that even Glass Menagerie novices probably could have picked them up.
Yet there was also plenty to appreciate in this charming production of an old standard, ably directed by first-timer Alex Lohman. For those of you who don’t know (well, if any of you don’t know), The Glass Menagerie takes place in Depression-era Saint Louis. Because his telephone man father “fell in love with long-distance” and left the family, 20-year-old protagonist and narrator Tom has taken on an unsatisfying job at a warehouse in order to provide for his mother Amanda and his sister Laura.
Amanda is a magnetic but fading “southern belle” who regrets marrying beneath her and who tends to be irritatingly domineering towards her children, largely due to her concerns about their uncertain futures. Meanwhile, Laura is a young woman whose insecurity about her slight limp has led her to become painfully shy and to retreat into her own private reality.
Despite her mother’s prodding her towards independence, she is unable to conquer her social anxiety long enough to make it through a course at business college or secure any other form of employment. Instead, she spends her days playing old records and polishing her glass collection.
Meanwhile, the chronically dissatisfied Tom escapes his unadventurous reality by “going to the movies” nightly; it’s implied that he is actually out drinking himself stupid. Naturally, this is a continual source of tension between him and his mother. Seeing the show in such a small theatre made the claustrophobia of Tom’s confinement in his family’s tiny, disheveled apartment newly visceral to me, and thus his overpowering desire for freedom more relatable.
Given that The Glass Menagerie is understood to be strongly autobiographical, one popular subtextual interpretation of Tom’s emotional desperation and unexplained escapades is that the character may, like Tennessee Williams himself, have been a closeted homosexual and out having secret liaisons with other men. Um, in case anyone non-obsessives are actually curious about such details.
Having seen the show before, I’ve gathered that the first act usually seems to pass a tad slowly, but this may in fact be part of Tennessee William’s strategy in illuminating the Wingfields’ plight. The plot doesn’t really kick off towards until towards the end of Act One when Amanda tells Tom that he is free to strike out on his own once he ensures that his sister is provided for by finding her a nice young man with whom she can settle down.
Since so much time and energy is spent establishing the idiosyncratic characters and their strained family dynamics before we really establish a narrative center, by the time Amanda offers Tom this escape route, we are near as desperate for something to change as the characters are.
Susan Burke Giganti, who played Amanda, well conveyed her character’s elegant southern charm and motherly obtrusiveness, but I ultimately found her performance slightly too subdued, perhaps lacking in the outsize charisma and emotional range that can really make the role shine. She did, however, have great parental chemistry with Harry Richards as Tom.
The two’s fraught relationship is painfully realistic and painfully relatable, and their constant bickering is the source of both much of the play’s pathos and much of its humor. Despite these amusing moments, though, both actors seemed to stop just short of truly inhabiting their roles. Though Richards brought an appropriate intensity to the play’s most dramatic moments, it occasionally felt more like he was going through the motions line by line than portraying a cohesive character.
On the other hand, I was quite impressed by Hannah Rosenberg’s portrayal of Laura. She maintained an impressive stage presence and energy despite the introversion of her character, and she wasn’t afraid to make her Laura as truly peculiar as the script indicates rather than merely demure.
It may also be worth noting that Laura, like A Streetcar Named Desire’s legendary Blanche Dubois, is a character who we know to be partially based on Tennessee’s Williams sister Rose, who was lobotomized in 1943 after being diagnosed with schizophrenia and who haunted her brother’s work from then on. This real-life subtext brings a whole new resonance to the use of blue roses as a key motif in Act Two, as well as to a moment where Laura imagines that a unicorn without a horn may have “had an operation” so that he would feel less “freakish” and fit in better with all the hornless horses.
It may also be worth noting that some scholars believe that Tennessee Williams’ sister Rose probably wasn’t actually schizophrenic at all and likely would have been instead labeled autistic if she had lived during more enlightened times. Or maybe absolutely none of this is worth noting, and I simply know far too much about The Glass Menagerie and the life of Tennessee Williams. I wrote this term paper once…
Ok, back to reviewing. The show really came alive when gentleman caller and “emissary from the world of reality” Jim O’Connor appeared on the scene early in Act 2, which may owe as much to actor Chris Cimorelli’s performance as anything else.
He ably balanced both the comedically buffoonish aspects of Jim’s character and the genuine kindness and charm that allows us to invest in his and Laura’s courtship. The two’s implausible moment of connection was by far the most engaging and enjoyable scene in the play.
I’m going to avoid directly revealing any spoilers in case there is anyone out there who’s never seen The Glass Menagerie, but I was also struck by how sincerely Cimorellli’s Jim seemed to regret not being able to do it more for the Wingfields. In fact, the impossibility of the position that Tom has put Jim in seemed so burdensome that I briefly felt almost sorrier for him than for the main characters!
Though I’ve come across plenty of Jim O’Connor haters in my day, I would argue that his one major mistake with Laura doesn’t make him a villain, much as Amanda’s nagging doesn’t make her a villain, Laura’s withdrawal doesn’t make her a villain, and, I would even argue, Tom’s questionable choice at the end of the play doesn’t make him one either.
I’m going to go ahead and unrepentantly steal an insight from the director of my production here, but what makes The Glass Menagerie so heartbreaking is that its story without any villains. It’s only a story about people, people doing what they feel they should or what they feel they must, and somehow shattering each other in the process. The play’s lyrical and devastating concluding monologue never fails to strike me right in the heart, and the rendition I saw yesterday evening was no exception.
It may also be worth noting that I have a tattoo of a blue rose on my right shoulder.
If you’ve seen The Glass Menagerie but never read it, it might be worth picking up the script sometime for the stage directions alone, which are full of impossibly poetic flourishes. However, you’d probably be far more entertained and far more moved by Maplewood’s version, which plays only until this Sunday the 27th.
If you’re interested in another 25 pages or so of me rambling on about The Glass Menagerie, I probably still have that old term paper somewhere. Meanwhile, I’m off to finish editing a post about the Theatre Lab’s Playwright’s Forum, which I have quite predictably managed to avoid completing until the latest acceptable minute, then to try and remain semi-functional enough to appease my family for a few hours, then hopefully take some semblance of a nap before I have to be conscious enough to perform at night 1 of The Delray Beach Playhouse’s Playwright’s Festival. Happy weekend and happy theatre-going, everyone!