Monday, October 16, 2017

ASF: "The Glass Menagerie"

"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts" is attributed to Aristotle, and the synergy reflected on the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's intimate Octagon stage in The Glass Menagerie (1944), its first offering of the 2017-2918 season, provides ample proof of the adage. -- Tennessee Williams' masterful script is sensitively interpreted by director David Ellenstein whose generous ensemble actors are dressed in Brenda Van Der Weil's character driven period costumes on an evocative set by Peter Hicks, with Phil Monat's atmospheric lighting and a haunting sound design by William Burns. -- The result of this collaboration is a hallmark of many ASF productions: a satisfying theatre event that has audiences reflecting on their own participation, one that completes the conversation with the ASF company after the performance ends and the applause has died down.

The Glass Menagerie was Williams' first successful play, acknowledged to have several autobiographical elements in it. With its old fashioned poetic language, heartbreaking situations, a fine mix of humor and pathos, and achingly recognizable characters that transcend the Depression Era during which most of the play is set, the harsh reality is of a family bonded in their love for one another that is thwarted time and again by circumstances beyond their control or by their inability to face them.

Tom Wingfield [John Lloyd Young] manipulates time as the narrator of and character in the story of his family; the play is his "memory", and as such "it is sentimental, it is not realistic", a one-sided haunted view of a past that he can not quit. -- Building up to the climactic moment when co-worker Jim O'Connor [Kevin Earley] accepts Tom's invitation to dinner in the cramped St. Louis apartment Tom shares with his manipulative yet protective mother Amanda [Greta Lambert] and his physically and psychologically fragile sister Laura [Christina King], the disastrous end to this meeting between his sister and the "gentleman caller" his mother so determinedly wants for her daughter affords Tom a release from the constrictions of a mundane job and a co-dependent family to follow in his long-absent father's footsteps -- "a telephone man who fell in love with long distances".

In his first appearance at ASF, Mr. Young [Tony Award winning Best Actor for "Frankie" in Jersey Boys], comfortably shifts between a brooding narrator in the present desperately seeking release from his memories and the petulant post-adolescent son and brother in his own haunted past, who would rather write poetry or go to the movies to escape the claustrophobic confines of home. His interactions   with the other ensemble members are fine tuned. We connect with his frustrations with Amanda, his attempts to be a friend to Jim, and his protective impulses for Laura.

Ms. King ["Miranda" in last season's The Tempest] creates a Laura with extreme social anxiety brought on by a bout of pleurisy when she was in high school; this resulted in a limp and a paralyzing dread of any kind of interaction with the outside world that has her retreat into the privacy of listening to old phonograph records and playing with her collection of figurines -- the "glass menagerie" of the title, and a symbol of her own fragile beauty. For most of Act I, Ms. King's persistent single-note voice becomes an aggravation that grates on even the most forgiving instincts of Tom and Amanda. It is only when she is left alone with Jim that this Laura's guard is down and the tension in her voice and body all but disappears.

Tom describes Jim as "the most realistic character in the play", and ASF newcomer Mr. Earley exudes the studied self-confidence of a man who is trying to better his lot in life by taking night courses, and can hold his side of polite conversation with Amanda's coquettish charm. He is comfortable in his own skin, and when Jim realizes that he and Laura had a passing acquaintance in high school, he shows her such regard that she is able to hold a conversation and even dance with him and kiss him, momentarily oblivious of her fixation on her disability. Mr. Earley's subtle and gentle assessment of Laura's lack of confidence and Ms. King's transformation is rendered with unaffected directness. The sincerity he brings to confessing his love for his girlfriend Betty, saying that "love changes your whole world", dashes any hope for a relationship with Laura.  And though Tom knew nothing of Betty, Amanda holds him accountable for the family's impending ruin.

Ms. Lambert's triumphant ASF career is legendary, and in The Glass Menagerie, she adds one more iconic role to her resume in a performance so unassumingly truthful in its delivery and so generous in sharing the stage with her fellows, that she inhabits Amanda Wingfield completely. Amanda centers the action of the play that Tom's memory replicates. Wanting only the best for her children, her "plans and provisions" are dependent on their cooperation; first and foremost is finding a suitable "gentleman caller" for Laura, but Amanda's Southern belle requires a gentility that is out of vogue in 1934, and neither Laura nor Tom is equipped to live up to her expectations.

In fact, Amanda's behavior is in part responsible for driving them away -- Laura retreats to her glass menagerie, and Tom escapes to the merchant marines. Ms. Lambert continuously fusses over both her children, fixates on proper etiquette that she sees through the lens of a genteel past in Mississippi when she entertained seventeen gentlemen callers in one day, and cajoles them with a determined will.

Though Amanda is not subtle about her intentions, Ms. Lambert makes her behavior completely credible. Devoted to her children, and determined for their welfare often at her own expense, the nuances she brings to the various masks she wears are remarkable: the overly charming magazine subscription sales ploys she uses on the telephone, her coquettish attempts to make Jim feel at home, her denial of her daughter's disability and her son's similarity to his father, her unflappably persistent optimism; but all falls apart when she realizes both Laura and Tom have lied so as not to hurt her -- her defenses come down with a devastating and shattering acceptance of reality.

There is no doubt that all three Wingfields love each other. Complicated and frustrated by their inability to express it, Tom's memory attempts to come to terms with his ghosts and set them all free. And the ASF audiences are the beneficiaries of a masterful production of The Glass Menagerie.