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Theatre Review: The Glass Menagerie

Everyman carries off triumphant production of Tennessee Williams classic

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The Glass Menagerie

By Tennessee Williams

through Oct. 6 At the Everyman Theatre

It’s tempting to think that we already know all we need to know about Amanda Wingfield, the domineering matriarch at the center of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. After all, the play has been staged, filmed, and taught so often that Amanda is remembered in a kind of shorthand: the Southern belle as monster mother. Not only is she intent on constantly reliving the best day of her life—the afternoon circa 1910 when she received “17 gentlemen callers” at her parents’ plantation house in the Mississippi Delta—but she also insists that her two children relive it with her.

But there’s a lot more to Amanda than that, as Deborah Hazlett proves in her astonishing performance in the Everyman Theatre’s production of the play. Daniel Ettinger’s evocative set reminds Amanda that she’s no longer a teenage debutante but rather a single mother of grown children in a cramped, dingy apartment in St. Louis, the white-pillared porch of her adolescence now replaced by a metal fire escape with peeling paint. She makes a little money selling brassieres in a department store and selling magazine subscriptions over the phone; her son, Tom (Clinton Brandhagen, CP’s “Best Actor” 2013), makes $65 a month in a shoe warehouse that he loathes, and her daughter, Laura (Sophie Hinderberger, CP’s “Best Actress,” 2013), can’t hold down a job because she has a limp and is painfully shy. Amanda, her bright-red hair floating above her narrow face in permanent waves, instinctively reacts to all these reasons for despair by creating a fantasy of a romantic past that is soon to be rediscovered around the next corner.

She doesn’t entirely believe that but she knows that without such a goal, the family will fall even further. When she tells Amanda’s story of the gentlemen callers, Hazlett gazes off in the distance past her children, her eyes glazed over as if she were drunk from sipping the sweet sherry of nostalgia. But when her discontented son makes a sarcastic comment, the glaze vanishes from Hazlett’s eyes, and they focus laser-like on Brandhagen, as if Amanda could impose her optimism on him by sheer force of will. Hazlett’s Amanda may enjoy her delusions, but she knows when she can afford to indulge herself and when she can’t. And watching Hazlett’s face flip the switch from dreamy nostalgia to stubborn anger is a terrific theatrical moment.

Tom, the play’s narrator as well as its male lead, is also more complex than what we may remember as a portrait of the artist as a young martyr. Obviously the playwright’s alter ego, Tom tries to write poetry in the bathroom at work and in the dining room at home, but his mother’s persistent harping about money, manners, and finding a gentleman caller for Laura strangles his muse. But Tom, Brandhagen makes clear, is no saintly victim; he’s as flawed as the father who deserted the family 16 years earlier. He stays out late every night, not to work on his poems or to take classes, but to drink, grumble, and sit in darkened movie theaters. Perpetually unshaven and heavy-lidded, with his tie always pulled down two buttons below the collar, Brandhagen seems to be begging for someone to fire him from his job or to kick him out of his house.

Nor is Laura a blameless sufferer. No one does more to keep the 20-something woman isolated in the apartment with her glass figurines and her father’s left-behind 1920s records than Laura herself. She’s so afraid of the outside world that she can’t even take a typing class without vomiting from nerves. Hinderberger, her light-brown hair pinned and flattened, her white sweater drooping over her slumping frame, is always curling her fingers inward to her torso, as if shrinking from everyone and everything. But the actress also makes it clear that a flicker of life survives inside; whenever she pulls out her high school yearbook to talk about her popular classmate Jim O’Connor, her eyes have a spark in them.

Without meaning to, Tom blows life into that flame when he brings Jim (Matthew Schleigh) home for dinner. Amanda immediately declares that this is the long-awaited gentleman caller and builds up expectations so high they can’t help but crash and burn. In the prologue, Tom the narrator describes Jim as “an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from,” but Jim turns out to not be so different after all. Though he works in the same warehouse as Tom, Jim bubbles with self-confidence, not unlike Amanda. Just as she basks in the remembered adulation of her gentleman callers, Jim basks in Laura’s glowing face, soaking it up with pleasure. He justifies it to himself by saying that he’s giving her a pep talk in self-confidence, but when he flirts with her, teaches her to waltz, and gives her a long, romantic kiss, he’s clearly serving his own agenda, not hers.

Cherry Jones is playing Amanda on Broadway this fall; Katharine Hepburn, Joanne Woodward, and Gertrude Lawrence have played her on TV and film. There have been local productions at Center Stage (1997) and Rep Stage (2010), but Everyman director Vincent Lancisi has opened up the script’s ambiguities in revealing ways, and his excellent cast has taken full advantage. Williams may well be America’s best-ever playwright, and no matter how many times you’ve heard it, his language is still full of surprises—especially in a production as triumphant as this one.

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