Glass Menagerie, at PacRep, June 15, 2013

“Beautiful” Glass Menagerie

Glass MenagerieBy Philip Pearce

As a goggle-eyed teen on his first trip to New York City, I bought a ticket to a show that starred an aging stage actress named Laurette Taylor; it would have closed in its Chicago tryout if critics there hadn’t mounted a campaign to push it on to Broadway. It was called The Glass Menagerie and since that distant day I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen various stage and screen versions of this early Tennessee Williams classic. And, discounting a disastrously terrible Warner Brothers movie version starring Gertrude Lawrence, there’s always been something worth watching in these mutations. The new one by PacRep at Carmel’s Golden Bough is no exception.

For starters, it is the most visually beautiful Glass Menagerie I’ve ever experienced. Stage directions in the original script call for occasional symbolic words and pictures to be flashed onto one of the walls of the set as comments on the action. It’s an arrangement almost all actual productions, including the Broadway original and a subsequent London version I saw starring Helen Hayes, have chosen to ignore in the interest of a more realistic presentation. PacRep director Kenneth Kelleher and stage designer Patrick McEvoy, however, have taken up Williams’s idea and expanded it excitingly. We don’t just see the faces of a long-departed father or some long dead adolescent swains. The story happens in a shifting panorama of projected skyscapes, news photos, city scenes and old movie clips, which set the struggles of the Wingfield family in their historic and social context of the 1930s. It’s a masterful piece of design, which also makes effective use of the theatre’s big central revolve to move portions of the action in and out of the spotlight. My only cavil with the set is the location of the fire escape. It’s  where Amanda calls Laura to come and wish on the new moon, the setting for that and a number of other key moments of hope, reflection and tenderness. McEvoy pushes it back against the upstage wall. That balances things nicely, but wistful hope, reflection and tenderness aren’t easy for any group of actors to project at long distance.

For all the social consciousness, it remains a play about an individual family struggling with dreams that shatter like the tiny animals in young Laura Wingfield’s glass collection. She and brother Tom are caught in the toils of their scheming, persuasive mother Amanda, beautifully played by Julie Hughett, who sees clearly that behind the fluttery exterior of this faded ex-Southern belle who once entertained “seventeen gentleman callers” in a single afternoon, there lurks the ruthless determination of a tigress. Hughett doesn’t allow us the luxury of much extended pity for Amanda. For all her false starts and domestic disasters, the woman’s mantra of “plans and provisions” means when one house of cards collapses, you quickly set up another. Some of Amanda’s comic and addled confusions get lost or underplayed in this incisive performance, but watching it is a pretty steady delight, nowhere more than in the skyrockets of frantic excitement set off by Tom’s announcement of the advent of an actual gentleman caller and possible fiancé for the crippled and repressed Laura, sensitively played by Nicolina Akraboff. That Gentleman Caller is the price Amanda has exacted for releasing Tom from her nagging domination, and a factory job he hates, into a world of adventure he has so far experienced only in endless trips to the movies.

It’s always good when a production offers something more than a retread of past successes and, like the sensational set, Aaron Wilton presents us with a believable if untypical Tom Wingfield. Less cynical, wistful and discouraged, less obviously the poet than previous Toms I’ve seen, he’s bright, coherent, energetic, and catches the underlying clown in the character beautifully. Here again, not a lot of room for pity. It’s perfectly logical to imagine this young man actually will find freedom and fulfillment if he can just wriggle out of the twin traps of a deadening family and a pointless job. What is lost is any strong significance in the famous closing speech, a kind of elegy which makes it clear the vaunted bolt for freedom that has not been a notable success. Perfectly possible, of course, that Tom Wingfield has been embittered by the cold realities of the outside world, but it might have helped if some of his wistful disappointment had been foreshadowed in the main action. 

That said, the ensemble chemistry of these three family members works wonderfully through all of Act I.

It was in Act Two that I began to feel uneasy. As the long awaited gentleman caller, Chris Deacon starts out well. He is obviously yet another disappointed dreamer. Once a high school jock and class dreamboat, he now finds himself stuck in the same turgid work routine as Tom’s. Where Amanda holds blindly to the threadbare materials of her past glories, O’Conner, like some trainee Willy Loman, pins his hopes on a regimen of self improvement and some glitzy sci-fi dreams of future success in a world of televised technology. His peppy go-getter approach works well when he first bursts onto the scene. Where it falters is in the long, important, beautifully written sequence between Laura and her White Knight which is the heart of the second act. As written, O’Conner sloughs off the glib Dale Carnegie veneer, reaches out to the terrified girl with genuine sensitivity and compassion, offering her a real, if only momentary, joy. But Deacon continues to play the scene with all the old go-getter mannerisms and self-improvement vocal effects. He seems less of a sensitive rescuer than a PR specialist making another sales pitch. The result, when he reveals that he’s engaged and can’t make future dates, may be some brief sympathy at Laura’s disappointment, but there’s probably a concurrent sense that, however pathetic, she has had a lucky escape from a well-meaning but shallow do-gooder.

This production is always clear, intermittently innovative and beautiful to look at. I recommend it.