1/26/2020 THE GLASS MENAGERIE Stage Door Players
(Bias Alert: I have often worked with director Topher Payne – and hopefully will do so again one day – and tend to view his work through approval-tinted glasses.)
(Sloth Alert: Much of this is plagiarized from a “template” I used for Georgia Shakespeare’s 2011 production of this play.)
Memory has a way of smothering us in its comfort-blanket embrace of rose-colored assurances even as it deceives us with its lost details, its manufactured incidents, and its pleasing fallacies. They say there is no consciousness without memory, no memory of early years before consciousness. What does it say about us when the core of who we are may be (and usually is) a blatant lie?
The Glass Menagerie is arguably Tennessee Williams’ most well-known “Memory Play.” In it, he attempts an exorcism of his own memories of his mother, his sister, and his youth in St. Louis. Tom Wingfield is telling us his memory of his final days living in that tenement that may or may not resemble Williams’ own. His memory is filtered, biased, and selective as he tells us of his overly eccentric mother Amanda and his crippled and shy sister Laura, of the “Gentleman Caller” who was supposed to pull Laura out of her fragile solitude, tells us of the circumstances that shattered forever the memory of hearth and home and family.
Like all memories, Tom’s ebbs and flows with detail, sometimes fuzzy and unfocused, other times sharp and clear. It is through Williams’ genius that these ebbs and flows transfer into a workable dramatic framework, that what we see is inalterably “infected” with Tom’s feelings – his mother a bit too jagged, his sister a bit too fragile. And we accept the conventions, because, at their root, are the very real emotions Tom will always carry. His story conveys all too realistically the emotional upheavals and consequences of the choices he made and regrets.
Our first contact with the Wingfield family in Stage Door Players’ exquisite and sublime production is the Wingfield home, more realistic than other productions demanded, cramped and cluttered as accuracy should require. Chuck Welcome’s precise set elevates the room above our heads providing a floor-level limbo space for Tom to wander, even as it provides a fire escape entrance that threatens to veer too closely to reality. J.D. Williams’ evocative lighting gives us sepia-filtered embers of amber memory as well as the requisite candlelight that leaves us with a breathtaking final image. Gobos shroud Tom in leaf-pattern images, even as he describes his eventual journey through cities sweeping “about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches.” And props designer Kathy Ellsworth has centered the set with a large and near-perfect portrait of father, that phone company minion who “fell in love with long distance,” an image of a charming hustler who apparently preferred to hustle himself out of a family.
Jonathan Horne, in one of the best performances I’ve seen as Tom, starts us off slowly and deliberately, as if he were carefully weighing every word, testing each phrase against the ever-shifting reality of his memory, not releasing it to us until it is just right. It’s an approach that pays off as we see his careful control gradually crumble, gradually reveal to us the overwhelming burden of emotion his story may be designed to hide.
The figures of his memory, the Amanda of Shelley McCook, the Laura of Katie Causey, the Gentleman Caller (Jim) of Benjamin Strickland, bring very different readings to these characters I thought I knew.
Ms. McCook gives us an Amanda blinded by the idealization of her own lost girlhood, stubbornly immune to the harsh realities of her situation and her family, yet filled with the giddiness of lost youth; it is a performance dominated by a familiar delicate and witty touch, a touch Ms. McCook brings to every role. She seems to wallow in her devotion to her children, to her (oft-misplaced, even delusional) aspirations for them.
Ms. Causey is remarkable, a fragile creature not merely shy, but pathologically withdrawn – when she learns the identity of the Gentleman Caller, she sobs as she realizes no merciful shadow will shroud her, sparing her from what she knows must come. This is a Laura that seems close in spirit to her source, Williams’ institutionalized sister, yet profoundly different from prior Lauras I may have described with these same words; this is a young woman who desperately needs real help, not pseudo-get-over-it platitudes that will be her lot in this household. And yet, as her encounter with Jim grows deeper, more familiar, she reveals that strength we always suspected was there all along, the strength that drains rapidly as the truths of the evening are revealed but barely accepted. Hers is a Laura that will be forever lost, forever abandoned, and it is heart-rending to get a glimpse of what “might have been.”
And, Mr. Strickland gives us a Jim who is pleasant and approachable, who doesn’t wear his self-created confidence like an arrogant club, who sees Laura for what she us, likes her for it, and regrets being put into a situation where he will make her retreat further into a brittle glass shell. This is a brilliantly performed, brilliantly directed Jim/Laura sequence that is alternately sweet, hopeful, and gut-wrenchingly traumatic. This scene (necessarily totally imagined by Tom) completes this play, ties it up into an emotional bolt and shoots it straight into our guts.
Topher Payne has directed his cast and design crew with a sure hand and a clear concept that does full justice to Williams’ delicate play. I loved how the look and sound underscored and emphasized the complex clarity of the emotional core, adding specificity to the familiar story. I loved how the cast inhabited these characters and made them real. Even if they are only constructs of Tom’s memory, of Williams’ memory, they nevertheless live and breathe and tell us their own tale, their own role in the memory of the storyteller(s).
The Glass Menagerie has always been a delicate figurine of a play, easily shattered by over-the-top acting or heavy-handed direction. In the hands of Stage Door Players, it is an outstanding exercise in theater, a candle-lit reverie that flickers its graceful emotional complexity and inhabits our own memory with a fragile but certain grip.
When Tom implores Laura to blow out her candle, to darken her memory forever, it is a sublime moment, a moment that reassures us that no matter how many tricks memory has up its sleeve, no matter how often it lies and deceives, it is always as true as it needs to be.
It would be satisfying to wish Mr. Williams a gentle “Blow out your candle, Tennessee.” Since he has already passed into our own memories, all we know of him is what he has shared. And I will be forever glad that he chose to share this particular moment, this particular shard of shattered memory, as I am glad that the over-the-top talents of Topher Payne have been tasked to bring it to life.
-- Brad Rudy ( @bk_rudy #sdpGlassMenagerie)