By Cherylyn Smith
Anyone who attends the current Good Company Players performance of “The Glass Menagerie” is in for a rare experience. Not only will the audience be mesmerized by a character evoking his memory of a life-altering past, but it will receive an indelible impression of a highly cathartic stage moment that is unsurpassed in American theatre. While most previous, professional productions have left audiences with that same lasting impression, this particular production deftly takes the audience further toward recognizing the underlying, subtler themes inherent in this play. In that respect, I believe it raises the bar on Fresno theatre by issuing original stylistic touches that allow us to plumb the depths of Tennessee Williams’ complexity as a playwright.
This play never waivers from its primary focus on its characters and their interactions. Each of them is trapped in isolation and employs escape mechanisms that keep them from connecting with each other. Tom Wingfield, the narrator and a central character, escapes into movies to satisfy his thirst for adventure in life; His sister, Laura, escapes into her fascination with her glass miniatures and her music; His controlling mother, Amanda, withdraws into her glorified past as a southern belle and into her far-fetched fantasy of a “gentleman caller”, a suitor for Laura, marrying into the family and securing its future.
Tom, played with an understated command by Steven Weatherbee, establishes the context of the play at the outset. From his reflective perch on the fire escape, he evokes his memory of past events. Much of that memory hinges on the times – the 1930’s Depression Era – along with the contaminant struggle for Americans to rise above the survival level. He introduces us to the dehumanizing effects of industrialized St. Louis, Missouri, which is the regions main route to employment. Tom’s ruminations effectively set the stage for audiences to view each character’s struggles from the perspective of the socio-political milieu, affording a generous degree of sympathy for the characters’ stifling family conditions. The family’s means of support is limited by the harsh realities of the outside world, as it affects their ability to emotionally support each other. As he introduces us to the play, Tom’s words are shrouded in richly poetic expression that hints at his latent desire and ability to become a writer.
Early on, the audience is focused on the heart of the play – Laura’s heart— which remains a predominant source of mystery, fascination, and sympathy. Abnormal as Laura seems to be, she pulls us into her world with her pure and innocent memory of romantic love. It is something she relentlessly protects, and she develops coping mechanisms, such as her glass collection, to endure its absence in her life. This absorption is at the expense of any practicality for Laura, to the point that she cannot hold a job, or even inhabit the outside world for very long. She dutifully follows her mother’s orders, since she is incapable of creating a life of her own. Laura is played with a complex mix of dignity and poignant strength, accompanied throughout by a highly vulnerable fragility, by Alyssa Gaynor.
The matriarch of the Wingfield family is Amanda whose values are fixed in the crumbling order of her southern past. She frequently retreats to her memories of those bygone days when she attracted numerous suitors with her notable charms. Since her husband abandoned the family for a free-spirited lifestyle, she struggles to make ends meet and establish financial security for herself and her children. (As an original, stylistic touch and an emblem of the American Dream gone renegade, her husband’s picture looms over the set as a constant reminder of her abandonment and her need to compensate.) She is overbearing and controlling, while she conjures up the image of a “gentleman caller” entering their home in order to marry Laura and save the family from ruin. Amelia Ryan is humorous and enlivening as she portrays Amanda escaping into her past glory days. Yet, Amanda is also extremely tough and manipulative and ignores her children’s emotional need for validation. Ryan navigates these sides of her character seamlessly.
When Jim O’Connor, the gentleman caller, (played with a true-to-life, natural flair by Patrick Regal) finally arrives for dinner, it’s as though the reality of the outside world from which the family has become excluded, is ushered in with him. He is a forward thinker, expansive, kind and generous of spirit, and he personifies the essence of the American optimist adapting to the limitations of the times. He is truly a “breath of fresh air” as he coaxes Laura out of her shell; Yet, he also accentuates the dysfunctional nature of the family’s existence. He and Laura together take this play to its climactic moment, which is as clear a revelation of the importance of love in a world that fails to sustain it as any rendering in the archives of American Theatre. The two actors skillfully open us up to a universal experience, both beautiful and tragic, that forges a lasting imprint on us.
To emphasize what sets this production apart from those that have come before it, I must call attention to its originality. The director, J. Daniel Herring, has artfully used tableaux to enhance the larger ideas in this play. Herring perceptively imbues the play with frozen background images of each character to signify not only their fading in and out of Tom’s conscious memory, but also to extend their position of influence on other characters, who occupy center stage. These tableaux’s are an eerie, yet comforting reminder of the fact that each person’s isolated state of being holds a deeper affinity as it pervades another character’s life. With this unique perspective, the characters are enjoined in a mysterious harmony, as illuminated in Tom’s powerful final monologue – his tribute to Laura.
As the director pointed out, opening night, February 25, was the anniversary of Tennessee Williams’ death. It is fitting to note that Williams had stated that Laura was based on his spinster aunt and that Tom was based on himself, as a budding writer.
The Glass Menagerie
2nd Space Theatre
Director: J. Daniel Herring
February 25 – April 17, 2016
Cherylyn Smith is a retired educator and adjunct instructor at Fresno City College. She is an environmental activist, and an avid follower of music, theatre, and books. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org