Barry Gaines Review: “The Glass Menagerie”

March 21, 2015

“The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams by Barry Gaines

Seventy years ago, “The Glass Menagerie” opened—first in Chicago and then New York City—and the struggling, thirty-something playwright Tennessee Williams changed the course of twentieth-century drama with this painfully personal yet lyrically beautiful play based on his own family’s experience. The play was hugely successful and remains one of the most often performed of Williams’s play—a modern classic.
To me, a play is a classic when each time you see it, you are struck afresh by its power, and the production directed by Denise Schulz at The Vortex Theatre is intense and moving.

This is a dream play, a memory play. It is set in shadows and colored in pastels.

The scene, captured by designer David Lafont, is a shabby St. Louis tenement during the Great Depression. Matriarch Amanda Wingfield has been transplanted from her comfortable, genteel southern roots by her charming husband. Sixteen years earlier, he abandoned Amanda and her two children, leaving them nearly destitute. Amanda is desperately trying to mold her daughter Laura and her son Tom in ways she thinks will prepare them for the future, a future that can fulfill her dreams.
Tom works in a shoe warehouse where he sneaks time away from his tasks to write poetry. He smolders with resentment and dreams of escape.

Laura is a wounded soul, haunted by a limp but crippled by her acute shyness. Despite her mother’s efforts, Laura retreats into a world of old phonograph records, left when her father deserted the family, and her collection of fragile, crystalline figurines, her glass menagerie.

Tom (Williams’s given name was Thomas) is the narrator as well as a character in the play. Its action revolves around Amanda’s prodding of Tom to bring home a potential suitor for Laura—a “gentleman caller” in Amanda’s words—and the appearance of Jim O’Connor as Tom’s nominee. Jim turns out to be the one boy upon whom Laura had a crush in high school, and their scene together is a masterpiece—touching and painful. Jim himself is an underachiever, but he reaches out to Laura. His encounter leaves her and her menagerie permanently altered.

Ryan Jason Cook is robust in the role of Tom. As Tom the narrator, he handles Williams’s prose poetry with intelligence. As Tom the son, his exchanges with his irritating mother are explosively discomfiting, and his need to break out of the confines of his family is palpable.

Rhiannon Frazier is an excellent Laura. Frazier seems to draw her slim body inward as if she wants simply to disappear, but her constant fidgeting with the buttons of her dress is distracting and unnecessary to convey her emotional discomfort. Laura’s limp is hardly noticeable except to her family. Through Frazier’s performance we feel for and even root for Laura.

The narrator refers to the “gentleman caller” as a symbol: “the long delayed but always expected something that we live for.” Nate Warren fills that role ideally. Handsomely dapper and confidently spouting Dale Carnegie platitudes about the powers of public speaking and self-assurance to overcome an inferiority complex, Warren’s Jim opens Laura to the possibility of love—if only briefly. The scene between the two young people is marvelous, and Frazier and Warren make the most of it. An unpaid electric bill leaves the couple in candlelight, but the romantic aura only flickers for a moment.

Amanda Wingfield is a towering part, and this is the second time Debi Kierst has undertaken it. After her 2001 performance, I wrote that she had made the role “hers”— “Her Amanda is in turn wheedling, bullying, coquettish, and stubborn, but hysteria lurks just below her surface.” If anything, Kierst is even stronger in 2015; she has added two qualities Williams used to describe Amanda: “dignity and tragic beauty.”

“Glass Menagerie” is a must.

“Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams, The Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle Blvd NE, Friday & Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through April 5; $22, $15; 247-8600,