Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review - The Glass Menagerie - Theatre Coup d’Etat - Fighting A Classic - 3.5 stars

I have to admit when I heard Theatre Coup d’Etat was producing The Glass Menagerie, my first thought was, “Really?  The Glass Menagerie?  Why?”  (The quick answer that leaps to mind is it has two large, meaty roles for women - which are still all too rare.  It takes place on a single set and only requires four people.  Logistically it’s an easier lift and also free from the sex and/or violence of other Williams plays like A Streetcar Named Desire, Orpheus Descending, Suddenly Last Summer, or Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.)

“Success and happiness for my precious children.  I wish for that whenever there’s a moon, and when there isn’t a moon, I wish for it, too.”

But then I remembered I had the same bewildered response to the announcement they were presenting Equus last year, and that turned out great.  And it’s not as if an older play doesn’t still have something to say to us in the present day. I tend to lean toward newer plays because there seem to be so many things going on that urgently need addressing in the here and now, and playwrights of yesterday perhaps didn’t even have those things on their minds.  Because theater is live, I expect it to address its time.  That said, some issues are timeless and always with us, and writers of any era can cross time and remind us of our common humanity in ways we didn’t expect. 

“Being disappointed is one thing, and being discouraged is something else.”

The minute the actors began speaking in Theatre Coup d’Etat’s production of The Glass Menagerie, I was reminded again of the biggest reason why it endures - Tennessee Williams has a beautiful way with words, both funny and poetic.  The Glass Menagerie is probably the prettiest excuse anyone ever committed to paper about why a man would abandon his family.  The situation isn’t pretty, but the play certainly is.  Even inept productions of The Glass Menagerie (and there are a lot of them, which is why people can be forgiven for rolling their eyes and thinking, oh no, not again) have the benefit of Williams’ script.  The script will not be denied.  It claws its way up and out from under any number of odd production concepts.  And I’m not gonna lie, it had to do a little fighting here. 

“I know what you’re dreaming of.  I’m not standing here blindfolded.”

The Glass Menagerie has two big advantages that carried over from Equus - Kevin Fanshaw and James Napoleon Stone.  Fanshaw played Alan in Equus, the troubled young man with the horse fetish - here he plays Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller.  Stone was the director of Equus, but for The Glass Menagerie, he takes his place onstage as our narrator, Tom Wingfield.

“You know it don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura.  But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?”

Tom, now a merchant marine, tells the audience the story of his final days living with his mother Amanda (Cynthia Uhrich) and younger sister Laura (Kaylyn Forkey) in St. Louis.  Since the father abandoned the family, Tom has been supporting them with his job in a local warehouse, and Amanda is scraping together some extra cash selling magazine subscriptions.  It’s Depression Era America of the 1930s, pre-World War II, so times are even tougher for a broken family struggling to get by.  Laura, sadly, isn’t much help, since her nervous and shy personality sabotages her attempts to learn a useful trade, even something as simple as a typing course at a business school.  Her insecurities stem from a childhood illness that left her with a slight limp.  That small defect is magnified in Laura’s mind, making her want to hide from the world.

“The future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it.”

Amanda’s upbringing in the deep south has her convinced that, even though her own marriage was a disappointment, a husband might be just the solution for Laura to give her some security.  Despite the fact that Laura is much less of a social butterfly than her mother, Amanda gets Tom to bring home a friend from work, Jim, as a dinner companion for Laura.  Of course, things go unexpectedly right and horribly wrong from there.  The Glass Menagerie is full of the humorous and hair-raising family dynamics displaying why your family is the one group of people who can genuinely drive you crazy, and yet at the same time, you can’t stop loving them almost in spite of yourself.

“Unicorns - aren’t they extinct in the modern world?”

Theater can also drive me crazy, even though I can’t stop loving it - or maybe because I can’t stop loving it. The trick to The Glass Menagerie is the scene where Laura and her gentleman caller Jim are left alone after dinner to get to know one another and, against all odds, they do.  If that scene works, then you’re home free.  If it doesn’t, you’re toast.  Here, it works great.  Kaylyn Forkey as Laura and Fanshaw as Jim are a lovely mismatched pair of imperfect people fumbling toward a connection to one another.  After that scene, the play is barreling toward its conclusion so, as they say, if you end well, they’ll forgive you anything.

“Her not speaking - is that such a tragedy?”

Most of the other choices for the production made by director Lanny Langston are pretty baffling to me.  The Glass Menagerie is a memory play.  It’s not a literal depiction of reality in the “kitchen sink” realism school of theater.  The play even tells you this - in the dialogue.  Not stage directions or essays written by Williams or others that may preface the plays.  The characters, speaking directly to the audience, of which the director is one, tell you how to stage the play:

“The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music.”

That’s the narrator, in his opening speech.  For some reason, the production takes this as an indication that it should not be dimly lit, not be sentimental, not happen to music, and should be as realistic as possible.  The music issue is doubly strange because the director is also listed as the sound designer.  Laura keeps referring to the fact that she can’t get enough of using the Victrola to play the records her father left behind (though her mother references this as an annoying habit).  Plus, there’s a dance hall across the street in their neighborhood and the music keeps wafting in from there as well.  The production has a pre-show and intermission soundtrack but struggles to incorporate music into a play that constantly refers to it.  Maybe the sound levels were off the night I attended.  There was also a rumble of thunder that seemed to come out of nowhere at a key moment in the action that wasn’t supported by sounds of a storm that I could make out at any other time before or after.

“We won’t be brilliant but we will pass inspection.”

Meagan Kedrowski’s set and props transform the recessed corner of Savage Umbrella’s Space into a spare but nicely furnished apartment.  The illusion is so well-rendered that it then seems weird that there’s no portrait of the father on the wall, just an empty frame.  The cast mimes food and drink with empty plates and glasses.  And despite the fact that everything else is realistic though the play largely doesn’t require it to be, the one item in the apartment about which all kinds of business revolve is a door.  Which doesn’t exist.  So all the actors have to mime it.  Which happens inconsistently, and takes the air out of pretty much any moment that involves it.

“Someone ought to kiss you, Laura.”

Something else that impacts the momentum of the play are the repeated blackouts between scenes.  Again, it’s a memory play.  You don’t need blackouts.  Dim the lights if you must or change the color if you want, play some music (there’s an idea), but it’s not literal.  One scene can flow into the next, you don’t have to punctuate them with darkness.  Also, it’s theater.  We get that actors, props and set pieces have to move around.  You don’t have to shield us from it or pretend it isn’t happening.  Particularly in a memory play where the narrator - standing outside the action - says it’s both memory, and a play.  The script is constantly drawing attention to its own artifice.  It’s giving you permission.  So go with it.  During the first blackout, Laura just had to put on a sweater.  It couldn’t be on a hook on the wall with the rest of the coats, or the back of a chair?  She had to walk offstage to do that?  I know these sound like small things, but they add up.  It’s as if each of the scenes was rehearsed completely independently from one another, for a directing or acting class, and not a lot of thought was put into how they were all supposed to work together as a whole story.

“Now it is just like all the other horses.”

Nowhere is this piecemeal approach more glaring than in the production’s treatment of the mother Amanda.  Cynthia Uhrich tries valiantly to make the character work, but the director’s sympathies are clearly with the children, Tom in particular, even though the playwright tries to keep everything balanced.  Amanda is not a monster.  She has her moments, yes, but all mothers do.  Does she lean on Tom too hard to be the breadwinner of the family?  Sure, but this is a woman in the 1930s who married poorly and was left to raise two children by herself with no support system (what family she had was down south, not in St. Louis).  It’s a miracle she got them to the age where Tom could take a job.  When she’s wishing on the moon, she wants her children to be successful and happy.  If anything, she wants them to do better in life than she did.  Both Tom and Laura are long out of high school, and yet they’re forced by necessity and limited resources to live with their mother.  Amanda's main fear is that Laura, with even less advantages than her mother had starting out, will end up destitute.  Does she reminisce constantly about the past?  Sure, but if you were a single mom raising two children by yourself during the Depression, you’d probably try to think about happier times, too, just to keep your spirits up.  Amanda Wingfield is a complex character, full of contradictions.  But she didn’t get 17 gentlemen callers in a single day just by being pretty.  And she certainly didn’t attract them by being an annoying harpy.  The woman had charm.  It’s gotta still be in there somewhere.  Women do not exist merely as obstacles to, or helpless victims to be rescued by, men, even in 1930s America, especially not in the plays of Tennessee Williams.  They are fully formed human beings as well.  They should be allowed to exist as such.

“I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be.”

Theatre Coup d’Etat’s production of the The Glass Menagerie has its problems.  But underneath it all, there’s still the Tennessee Williams script that attracted them in the first place, and the audience gets to hear that, too.  In fact I heard some things for the first time, and heard some other things in a different way, that I hadn’t before.  And that’s a gift for which I’m grateful.  It makes me wonder what the production might have been like if it was working more closely with the script rather than fighting against it.

3.5 Stars - Highly Recommended

(photo courtesy of Theatre Coup d'Etat - Beleaguered siblings Tom (James Napoleon Stone) and Laura (Kaylyn Forkey) in The Glass Menagerie)

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