Friday, September 19, 2008

Glass Menagerie


‘GLASS MANAGERIE,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, was Tennessee Williams’ first successful professional play. In spite of the fact that theatre critics are often maligned, Williams’ career as one of America’s greatest modern playwrights may never have taken place if not for two determined Chicago reviewers.

When ‘MENAGERIE’ opened in Chicago in December of 1944, due to bad weather and the lack of a well known author, the play had such low pre-sales that the producers considered closing the show after the first week. Critics Claudia Cassidy and Ashton Stevens were so enamored with the play they actually pleaded with readers to attend. Their efforts were successful and resulted in not only a successful Chicago run, but also inspired a New York production. The end result was the birth of one of America’s great plays. It also allowed Williams to have successful productions of such masterpieces as ‘A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE,’ ‘THE ROSE TATTOO,’ and ’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.’

From a local perspective, it is interesting to note that the year before “MENAGERIE’ opened in the Windy City, The Cleveland Play House presented the world premier of Williams’ ‘YOU TOUCHED ME,’ a play based on a story of D. H. Lawrence, which is little remembered.

The 1945 Broadway production of ‘MENAGERIE,’ which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, starred Laurette Taylor, who had been a star in the 1920s and 30s, but had withdrawn from the theatre scene due to sever alcoholism. Her portrayal of the mother, Amanda, received outstanding reviews and ushered in a comeback. Other notables who have played the role include Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris and Maureen Stapleton.

The story centers on Tom, who narrates a tale of his memories of his past. Much as a traditional Greek chorus, he introduces characters and comments on the action. We meet his mother, Amanda, a faded southern belle who has been abandoned by her husband, and is living in the past while trying to navigate in the present. One wonders, are her tales real or is she living the great lie, clinging to her sanity by telling stories over and over until even she isn’t sure if they are real or illusions of her imagination. He introduces us to Laura, his physically and emotionally fragile sister who has magnified a slight limp into a major ailment to use as a device to cut herself off from reality. A reality that centers on an escape into a small animal glass collection which includes a unicorn, which much like Laura is different because of its horn. And, finally we meet Jim, a former high school acquaintance who now works at a shoe factory with Tom, who is brought home in hopes that he will marry Laura. Tom, who sat next to Laura in school choir, and with whom she has been in love her entire life.

As with many of Williams’ scripts, it concerns escape, escape from reality, from the harshness of life. It contains a signature southern deluded female who finds herself in a society that doesn’t understand her and which she doesn’t understand (think Blanche in ‘STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’). It contains much symbolism. The fire escape, which is the only means of escape from the life in the oppressive apartment; the victrola and glass animals, which Laura uses for her escape from reality; the magic show and films, Tom’s means to escape from a life he hates; and the gentleman caller, Amanda’s hope for Laura to escape her present life.

The Cleveland Play House production, under the direction of Michael Bloom, is a good representation of Williams’ work. As with any production, the director’s vision sets the play’s attitude and the character interpretations. Bloom has a clear vision of the role of the characters, and since this is a character, not a plot driven script, that sets the tone.

His Amanda, as portrayed by the talented Linda Purl, is delusional, often comic, causing the audience to laugh at her, rather than feeling empathy and pathos for her. That approach adds a lightness and a humor level to the show, not usually seen. Purl consistently carries through Bloom’s interpretation. Personally, I feel about Amanda as I do of Blanche in “STREETCAR.” They are women forced to live in circumstances which are so beyond their control and recognition that they became psychotic. They are pathetic not humorous. But, that’s my view, and I’m not the director of this production. Bloom is.

Alison Lani often stays on the surface of Laura. She has some brilliant moments, as when she realizes that the Gentleman Caller is not going to return and her life, like the broken horn of her beloved unicorn, is not going to be repaired, saved. Yet, at other times, she seems to be feigning the character…overusing her “misshapen” hands, contorting her face rather than letting internal motivations set her expressions.

Daniel Damon Joyce is right on target as Tom. He is totally believable. He balances his internal and external rage with ease. (Having played the role twice, I am aware of the difficulty of making what appears to be a straightforward role into a tour-de -force performance.)
Sorin Brouwers gives Jim, the Gentlemen Caller, a nice edge of cockiness combined with vulnerability. His is a nicely texture performance.

Michael Lincoln’s lighting gives the right glow and darkness to the goings on. This is a play with lots of psychologically dark corners and Lincoln helps create them. Michael Roth’s underscoring music is effective, though at times it gets lost in the action. Susan Tsu’s costumes were not only period correct, but helped create the proper image for each character. Robert Mark Morgan deviated from Williams’ set description, but created a workable stage.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘THE GLASS MENAGERIE’ is one of America’s great modern plays. For those who have not seen it, they will get a vision of not only the work of a great playwright, but an interesting interpretation at CPH. For those who are familiar with the play, Bloom’s interpretation, especially his concept of Amanda, should be good fodder for conversation.