An Innovative ‘Glass Menagerie’ Leaves Questions Unanswered.
‘THE GLASS MENAGERIE’
MARK TAPER FORUM, LA
SEEN SEPTEMBER 11, 2010
By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink
The Long Wharf Theatre production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” technically opened in Los Angeles on Sept. 12 in the Music Center’s Mark Taper Forum as part of the Center Theatre Group’s current season. Performances began on Sept. 1 and I saw this “Glass Menagerie” on Sept. 11, which hardly seemed like a preview since the play has also been produced for the Roundabout Theatre Company off-Broadway.
Although the production is polished with excellent acting, director Gordon Edelstein’s innovative changes to the original version make the production seem at times off-balance.
Although much of the action of this memory play still takes place in the St. Louis tenement where Tom Wingfield, his mother Amanda, and his sister Laura live, Edelstein changes the locale of the narrator, Tom, who usually sits on the fire escape, or thereabouts, with a view of the adjoining alleys, clotheslines and garbage cans as he remembers his family’s confrontations. The close proximity of Tom to the inside of the apartment makes it easy for him to float in and out of the action so that the audience feels like it is eavesdropping into the lives of these three tragic characters. The scenes are part of memory, so the audience is aware that the scenes have taken place in the past, but many do not know that Tom has already left or will leave the family at the end. That discovery is part of the climax of the play for the audience to discover.
But in the Edelstein version, an older Tom has been estranged from his mother and sister for a number of years and is found typing out the family’s story, thus the play, in a New Orleans hotel room. This diminishes the impact of the climax found in the original version. The play no longer has a place to go.
Tom is no longer the warehouse worker by day who spends his nights in movie houses to escape his mother’s verbal abuses and sister’s escapist retreats into an imaginary fairyland. Not even intoxication can dull his pain, so he has deserted his crippled sister and dependent mother just as his father had done, and he has become the playwright, Tennessee Williams, born Tom, typing out the dialogue of the autobiographical characters who resemble his mother, Edwina; his sister, Rose; and himself. He must travel further in time and space than the original Tom to partake in the memoiristic action of the play. The memories seem more defused; the audience becomes aware of the outcome from the onset.
In addition, Tom’s character has taken on a new dimension. He is openly gay. It is not a suggestive quality that he might be hiding from himself or from his family, but one that is clearly visible to everyone but apparently his mother, who ordinarily never misses a beat but doesn’t mention it. He is the total reincarnation of Tennessee Williams, which seems too complex to fathom within the framework of this play since the Tom in Williams’ traditional “Glass Menagerie” has enough to deal with without adding another layer.
Tom’s father’s picture hangs on the wall in the living room. “It is the face of a very handsome young man. . . . He is gallantly smiling,” the stage directions describe. Amanda fell for him hook, line and sinker, but he was “a telephone man who fell in love with long distances,” according to Tom, and Tom follows in his footsteps. Adding the “gay” dimension to Tom’s character means that we look at Tom differently from the Tom in previous productions. He is no longer like his father – a man who was undeniably attractive to women. This Tom has additional burdens which are not explored that have led to his departure, since at the onset of this production, we know that he has deserted the family. He is no longer just the tormented narrator. He is more multi-dimensional than the playwright imagined him to be. This Tom would have been a puzzle to his mother who would have confronted him since she confronted him on everything. How she would have emotionally come to terms with his homosexuality is not explored, thus creating a hole in the play and a hole in my understanding of the characters, although Amanda does question Tom’s nightly whereabouts. Such exploration would require Williams to return from the grave to add scenes and write dialogue. Even if Amanda is aware of and accepting of Tom’s homosexuality, the audience remains in the dark and has unanswerable questions.
Therefore Tom’s rebirth as a gay playwright in a New Orleans hotel room is more than the audience has bargained for; and although we find Edelstein’s staging creative on the stark but well-appointed set with upstage scrim, we feel that something isn’t quite right and does not quite fit.
Sometimes directors give actors extra blocking, mannerisms or a problem to solve when the actors are self-conscious or don’t bring a sense of realism to their characters. Patch Darragh displays none of these ailments, yet he has added mannerisms and speech patterns to convey Tom’s homosexuality that are inconsistent, somewhat jerky, and unwarranted. Although they detract from the simplicity of the character, Darrah has followed through with the director’s intent.
Tom’s mother Amanda is an extremely complicated woman. She was once a Southern belle with all the social graces required to attract 17 gentleman callers in a single afternoon.
“It wasn’t enough for a girl to be possessed of a pretty face and a graceful figure,” she says in Scene 1, acknowledging that she had both. “She also needed to have a nimble wit and a tongue to meet all occasions.”
These qualities must be inherent in Amanda’s character even though she is now many years older, has been abandoned by her husband, has struggled to put food on the table for her two children, is dependent on Tom to provide for the three of them, and wants nothing more than for Laura to find a husband to ease her burden.
She constantly reprimands her children for every conceivable reason, which weighs heavily on Tom, driving him to movie theaters and bars; and on Laura, driving her into seclusion with a collection of miniature glass animals. Much as Williams’ real mother has been described, she talks but doesn’t listen, smothers but doesn’t touch.
Judith Ivey as Amanda gives a noteworthy performance, but again, something is missing. She talks, but often listens; smothers but often touches — therefore making her less of a freak than Williams probably intended and probably more difficult for Tom to leave. Her Amanda loves Tom and Laura. They know it, yet they are caught in her prison.
I simply do not believe that she ever had the charm to attract 17 gentlemen callers, especially in the scenes before intermission, which were slow-moving with Ivey at times being difficult to understand. Ivey doesn’t display that she has ever had the graceful Southern-belle demeanor that is required of the role. She appears to simply be an elderly woman who chastises her children with a twang in her voice that renders her annoying. When she learns that Laura has failed to attend classes at business college, even after Laura explains to her how devastating the experience has been, she remains insensitive to Laura’s plight because she is desperate to find a light at the end of the tunnel to save her family. Here she captures Amanda’s character with precision.
With all due respect, after intermission, when Amanda is dressed to entertain the gentleman caller that Tom has invited to meet Laura, she perks up, looks more like the Amanda we envision, and seems better suited for the role. But I looked at an old clip of Katharine Hepburn portraying Amanda, and I detected an energy communicated by Hepburn that Ivey fails to exude. So although Ivey’s portrayal is accomplished and noteworthy, there have no doubt been others that might be more remarkable.
Laura is another character that twangs in this production. Heaven knows, she has enough problems as it is. I guess she just picked up the annoying sound from her mother and brother.
Keira Keeley as Laura is effective as she navigates around the stage effortlessly with her disability, revealing it to us without overdoing it. She is completely believable in her scene with the gentleman caller, moving from introverted and shy to effervescent and hopeful, and from nervous and neurotic to normal and then back again. She reminds us that many of those who suffer from mental illness might be victims of circumstance; and with hope, support and opportunity, some of their delirium might possibly be reversible.
When Jim O’Connor breaks Laura’s unicorn, she no longer finds the accident devastating because she has hope. Without hope, the unicorn is her raison d’être. When Jim announces his engagement to another woman, Laura’s hopes and foray into the real world are shattered, thus making this play the ultimate tragedy.
As Jim O’Connor, Ben McKenzie is the most reliable actor and character in this production. By that I mean that he is exactly what we envision O’Connor to be. We can picture him winning the hearts of the young girls in his high school, playing the lead in the school musicals, being the class president, and winning Laura’s heart. We can also picture him as another victim of circumstance who ends up as Tom’s co-worker in a warehouse.
O’Connor knows exactly what to say to Laura to build up her spirits, for it is precisely this talent coupled with his good looks and charm that brought him his high school popularity. But his recent setbacks have made him more insecure, yet a better person; so after kissing Laura, even though he knew the action was wrong, he feels guilty and tells her the truth.
The scene between Jim and Laura is dimly lit, probably too much so. It is the highlight of the show in my opinion because it brings subtle sentimentality to the production, even though if Keeley had played the character with more vulnerability, the scene would have still been more poignant.
I read a review from a critic that praised this production for its lack of sentimentality. I feel the opposite. All the brash whining just annoyed me. Tennessee Williams’ language is poetic. I see no reason to hide that in the name of realism. Sentimentality and poetry go hand in hand. Tragic characters are often poetic. The end result is that those in the audience forget they are in the theater, stop laughing at the one-liners that may be witty but are really not funny in tragedy, just serve as comic relief, and allow themselves to be drawn in by the characters and share in their pain. Playing the lines for laughs is incongruous with Williams’ tone and intent. And an audience that laughs fails to comprehend the characters’ despair.
Tom should be a narrator. Amanda should be a Southern belle who has faded, and Laura should be a vulnerable, fragile but deformed flower. Then when the audience becomes aware that Tom has left his mother and sister at the end of the play (not at the beginning), when he says, “Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger, anything that can blow your candles out” – then the audience could feel something.
Director: Gordon Edelstein
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
Costume Designer: Martin Pakledinaz
Sound Designer: David Budries
Critic’s Note: Even though I may not agree with Edelstein’s concept which has augmented the portrayals of the actors I have appraised, I respect Edelstein for his creativity, for his re-analysis of the play, and for the care he has taken in reworking the material.
“The Glass Menagerie” is one of our most cherished American classics. The interpretations of the director and actors are worthy. This “Glass Menagerie” serves to educate. I recommend it to all.