'The Glass Menagerie' is a fine theater craft

Published: Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at 12:08 p.m.

Tennessee Williams called "The Glass Menagerie" his "quiet play" and maybe the only quiet play he'd ever written. He also called it, more famously, a "memory play."

On stage at The Hippodrome State Theatre, the quiet beauty of Williams' memory play resonates in a production faithful to the author's intent and beguiling to an audience riveted to its drama. In the theater, as in life, "The Glass Menagerie" is, as Williams says of his character, the Gentleman Caller, "the long delayed but always expected something that we live for."

The saga of the Winfield family is played out in the memory of Tom, the son, who serves as the play's narrator. Tom introduces his mother, Amanda, the first in Williams' collection of faded Southern belles to capture the attention of the theater world.

A garrulous, ambitious mother with unrealistic expectations of her would-be poet son, and of Laura, her extraordinarily shy daughter, Amanda is the strength of the play, its heart and guts, if not its soul.

The play's soul belongs to Laura, a mildly disabled young woman, who is so fearful of the world that she would rather hide in the park all day than be seen at school. Laura is comfortable only when she plays old records on her Victrola or when she is arranging her collection of glass animals, her "glass menagerie."

The time in Tom's memory is the late '30s, when he was working in a St. Louis warehouse to support what today would be called his dysfunctional family. Tom dreams of leaving for adventure in far-away places. Amanda dreams of past glories when she was a Mississippi cotillion queen.

Intent on making a good life for Laura, who clearly needs help, Amanda begs Tom to bring home a gentleman caller, whom she expects will fall in love with Laura and marry her. In the play's first act, Tom and Amanda do battle over his nightly movie-going and his "selfish" preoccupation with his own life.

When Tom finally agrees to bring home a gentleman caller for Laura, Amanda is thrown into a frenzy of happiness mixed with anxiety. Will she have time to organize the household and dress Laura in the right clothes?

Through all the planning and preparations, Laura herself is politely indifferent until she learns that the caller is Jim, the boy she had a crush on in high school. Her fear of meeting him is akin to the horror of Joan of Arc being burned at the stake. Ultimately, she does meet the man of her dreams and, as it turns out so often, the night's dream and the day's reality are separated by who we really are.

The scene between Laura and the Gentleman Caller, played in candlelight, is one of the most memorable in theater literature.

Played by Marybeth Gorman as Laura and Michael Littig as Jim, the Gentleman Caller, the scene is a gem in this jewel-studded Hippodrome production.

A collective sigh goes through the audience as Jim waltzes Laura around the room and then kisses her in what is as tender and romantic a kiss as has been seen on stage.

When Jim reveals the truth about himself, Gorman's frozen shock holds the audience in her motionless despair. Although Jim is supposed to be a banal character, as played by Littig, he is likeable, the perennial nice guy you'd find smiling at you across the hedge next door.

Since its opening in 1945, many actresses have played Amanda, the failed Southern belle and pushy mother. They include Jessica Tandy, Maureen Stapleton, Julie Harris, Katherine Hepburn and Joanne Woodward (the last two in films). As Amanda in this Hippodrome production, Morsey can proudly take her place among them. In fact, she already did in the Hippodrome's earlier production of the same play 10 years ago.

Morsey has many fine dramatic moments, but my favorite is the scene in which she appears dressed in her old, girlish cotillion gown. With a bouquet of jonquils in her arms, she reminisces about the summer of her beaux and of the jonquils that filled her house with their beauty and color. Morsey makes Amanda a wonderfully engaging, if a bit too chatty, theater companion.

Niall McGinty, who plays Tom - the son, narrator and Williams' alter ego - tends to be overwrought and overly loud. Yearning to be free of his family, McGinty's Tom is a bitter, angry man who fails to truly show the attachment he feels for his sister, which, in fact, haunts him all his life.

Jim Morgan, who designed the set for "The Glass Menagerie," has come up with a brilliant design of cockeyed, gold-leaf picture frames that show the abstract dream-like qualities of Williams' memories as well as the interior of the family's apartment.

Robert P. Robins has perfectly lighted and highlighted the scenes, and scenes within scenes. Risa J. Baxter's sound design for the play includes not just the circus-like music Williams asked for, but a collection of great songs from the '40s. Marilyn Wall's costumes evoke the period accurately. The dress resurrected from Amanda's cotillion days is particularly lovely as is Laura's filmy gown worn for the Gentleman Caller.

Lauren Caldwell, who directed "The Glass Menagerie," has done herself proud with a production in which all the pieces fit together to make fine theater craft.

'The Glass Menagerie'

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; through Feb. 1

Where: Hippodrome State Theatre, 25 SE 2nd Place

Tickets: $25-$30, $20 seniors, $12 students

Information: 375-4477 or www.thehipp.org

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