Talkin’ Broadway Review: “The Glass Menagerie”

March 31, 2015

The Glass Menagerie – The Vortex Theatre

What a perfect title: The Glass Menagerie. It applies not only to Laura’s collection of crystal animals, but to all the characters in the play. They’re all caged in, they’re all fragile (except maybe Jim), and they’re all prisms of the human experience.
And what a perfect play. I wouldn’t change a single word of it. It may be familiar to almost all Americans, since just about everyone is supposed to read it in high school, but it’s not an old chestnut. It rewards repeated viewings—not every year, maybe, but at least once a decade.

This time, in the Vortex production directed by Denise Schulz, I was struck by how the dialogue hasn’t aged much in 70 years, by how relevant it is to our current economic situation where people are cash-strapped and stuck in dead-end jobs because they can’t find anything better, and by how much humor there is in the play. I always thought of it as a drama, and it is; but as in life, there are laughs amidst the tears.

Most theatergoers know the story: Amanda Wingfield, a Southern belle transplanted to St. Louis, and her children Laura and Tom have been abandoned by the family patriarch years ago. Just scraping by on Tom’s salary from a job at a shoe warehouse, Amanda is determined to provide for the pathologically shy and mildly disabled Laura by finding her a husband. The search for a “gentleman caller” and what happens when he shows up are the main plot points.

But this play is not about plot. It’s about family and dreams and desires and regrets and remorse, and although this is a very specific family in a specific time period, the Great Depression, it’s about almost everybody’s family. How else do you explain its international success? We may think of The Glass Menagerie as archetypically American, but it resonates in all human beings.

The director’s charge in this play is to cast it well and not let them overact. On both counts, Denise Schulz has succeeded beautifully. The acting is as naturalistic as one could hope for. Even though this is a self-described memory play, we are viewing it along with Tom as what actually happened, not as a fabrication of his imagination.

Amanda is one of the great roles of the theater, and Debi Kierst is truly exceptional here. All of her acting is true to the character, and she is the most sympathetic Amanda I can remember. She drives Tom crazy, of course, and I’m sure she did the same to her husband, but when she says that the only thing she wants is happiness and good fortune for her children, I believe her.

Ryan Jason Cook is convincingly annoyed, frustrated, despairing, and secretive as Tom. (Is Tom hiding his homosexuality, or am I just reading that in because I know that Tom is really Tennessee Williams?) The director has chosen to have Tom never be off stage. He is always somewhere looking in on the action, since it is his memories that we are watching, but this is not an obtrusive tactic and Ryan reacts perfectly to everything that Tom sees/remembers.

Rhiannon Frazier and Nate Warren are both excellent as Laura and Jim the gentleman caller. They get to play out one of the best scenes ever written by anybody, and do a marvelous job with it. Rhiannon does not appear as “crippled” as Laura thinks she is, and that’s the whole point. She has to be pretty enough that Jim would be drawn to kiss her, and she is. Nate is totally believable as a guy who peaked in high school but is unrelentingly optimistic, perhaps blindly so. Will his life with Betty, his “steady,” always be tinged with the memory of Laura? Alas, there is no sequel. Nor should there be.

Everything about this production is first rate: the set by David Lafont, perfect period costumes including shoes by Carolyn Hogan, props by Nina Dorrance (more ubiquitous than ever), excellent lighting by Chris Duncan, and sound and music by Casey Mraz. Alex Wasson stage manages, and I think he is doing the sound and lights, too; if so, he does a great job. In summary, terrific work by all involved.

I have to admit that if I were going to skip any of the several plays that opened in Albuquerque this past month, my inclination would have been to take a pass on this one, because it seemed too familiar. What a mistake that would have been.

The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, directed by Denise Schulz, is being presented at the Vortex Theatre through April 5, 2015. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. The Vortex is on Carlisle a few blocks north of Menaul. Tickets $22, or $15 for students. More information at, or 505-247-8600.
Photo: Christy Lopez
–Dean Yannias