Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Glass Menagerie

Blue Roses
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Niclas Olson, Jess Weaver, Dayna Childs       All photos by Tim Johnston
Bring up Tennessee Williams to most theatre folk and you’ll likely hear the term depressing in short order, and that epithet is well earned. The Glass Menagerie, superbly directed by Micheal O’Hara at Lakewood Playhouse, is no exception, but there is far more to this finely crafted, emotionally nuanced play that makes it worth producing (and watching) again and again.

With just four characters, Williams offers up a wider array of emotions, challenges, and complex human interactions than you would think possible. With very deliberate and measured pacing, director O’Hara and an outstanding ensemble cast made sure none of it got lost.

Set in the depression, the play is presented as the reminiscences of Tom Wingfield (Niclas Olson), before he, like his father, fled the family to join the Merchant Marine. The Wingfields are a broken, dysfunctional, financially struggling family. Tom and his sister Laura (Jess Weaver), both in their twenties, live with their overbearing and micromanaging mother Amanda (Dayna Childs) in the long shadow of an absent father who abandoned them sixteen years ago to roam the world.

L to R: Dayna Childs, Jess Weaver 
Matriarch Amanda clings desperately to her long gone, elegant Southern plantation life, a past when she was young, beautiful, and greatly adored by many “gentlemen callers.” She loves her children, and wants them to thrive in what’s turned into a terrifyingly gritty world, but sees them as misguided and flawed, and thus in need of her constant redirection. Alternately cajoling and berating them, she tries to force them into her vision of a successful family, as much out of love as desperation. Instead, she pushes them away from her and more deeply into their own self-destructive coping mechanisms.
Jess Weaver 
Tom, whose distasteful warehouse job provides their main support, smokes (and possibly drinks) too much, and spends countless hours “at the movies” avoiding the painful family dynamic that he is powerless to fix and loathe to tolerate. Laura, partially lame but cripplingly shy, sneaks around the house hiding from the awful present, and her painfully humiliating past, behind her Victrola records and her collection, a menagerie of  tiny glass animals.

At his mother’s insistence, Tom brings a co-worker named Jim O’Connor (Nick Fitzgerald) home to dinner to meet his sister. He is none other than Laura’s secret crush from high school. In what unfolds as perhaps the best and most sensitively acted scene of the play, upbeat, optimistic, self-improving Jim manages to drag Laura out of her shell and provide her, and the audience, with their first taste of real hope for something better. It’s a beautiful scene, and the two do an amazing job of creating something poignant yet believable.

L to R: Jess Weaver, Nick Fitzgerald
But in Williams’ inimitable fashion, it all gets dashed on the rocks of an unsuspected and relentless reality.

A multi-level set by James Venturini, with props and set dressing by Karrie Morrison, creates the appropriately dismal home of a woman clinging to the last vestiges of imagined elegance. It’s ably aided by subdued and shadowy lighting by Aaron Mohs-Hale, and spot-on costumes by Rachel Dimmig and Blayne Fujita. Lakewood’s artistic director John Munn handled the sound design very adroitly, with period music and such sound effects as an old time running projector overlaying Tom’s narration as his memories of the family unfold. Stage manager Alyshia Collins kept the complex interplay running smoothly.

I think the real question for audiences comes down to “do I want to see a story that is ultimately sad, but expresses itself through a wealth of beauty, touching connections, and real, heartfelt emotion.” Thanks to an excellent director and cast, this production comes off not as depressing, but rather as a moving and compassionate glimpse into one family’s challenged life. Some of that, of course, is due to Williams’ outstanding writing, but against all odds, it was a surprisingly enjoyable play to watch.

The Glass Menagerie
Feb 16 to Mar 11, 2018
Lakewood Playhouse

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