The Glass Menagerie
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Greenway Arts Alliance
Through June 14
This play, which provided Tennessee Williams with the first great success in his spectacular but ultimately blighted career, is astonishingly rich, simple, and forthright. That it requires only four actors and a single set has deluded many actors and directors to think it is an easy play to do. But it requires a delicate touch, and a particularly gifted director and cast to release its magic.
In this production, directed by Jack Heller, it gets them. All four of the actors are at their best, and the production makes the most of the play’s ambiguities.
The role of Amanda Wingfield, widely acknowledged as a fictionalized portrait of Williams’s mother, Miss Edwina. (Miss Edwina herself had mixed feelings about this. When the play first opened, she was frequently asked if she was Amanda Wingfield. She replied sharply, “I never wore yellow in my life!” But later in life she seemed to relish the idea.) Williams etched a portrait that is as ruthless as it is loving. And the role is both a blessing and a curse for any actress cast in it.
The blessing comes from the richness of this pretentious, loving, affected, determinedly optimistic, sentimental, self-dramatizing, and passionately dedicated mother who strives so mightily to create good lives for her crippled daughter Laura and her poet son Tom, only to be defeated by her own tragically misguided efforts.
It’s also a curse for the actress because, no matter how fine her performance is, it will inevitably be compared with the now legendary work of Laurette Taylor in the original Broadway production. And nobody can really compete with a legend. (It also seems to have been a blessing and a curse for Taylor herself. It won her the greatest acclaim of her long and varied career, but by the time she was cast, she was a semi-recovering alcoholic, trying desperately not to fall off the wagon, and suffering from cancer so painful that she had to keep a bucket in the wings to vomit into, and which eventually made it impossible to continue in the role.)
In any case, in this production, Lisa Richards puts her own indelible stamp on Amanda. She gives us all of the familiar qualities, but she adds to them an element of egotism and a touch of the performance artist. When she persuades her son Tom (Brian Foyster) to bring home a young man for his sister Laura (Kerry Knuppe), she’s attempting to relive the glories of her own youth in the life of her daughter. But shy Laura is woefully inadequate for the role. So Amanda must try to charm the young man herself, playing out her probably glamorized memories of being a Southern Belle with 17 gentlemen callers.
Whether trying to sell magazine subscriptions, maddeningly awakening her children with cries of “Rise and shine!,” or blaming everyone but herself for her failure to impose her will on the realities she is stuck with, she rivals Shakespeare’s Cleopatra in her infinite variety.
Foyster’s Tom is an admirable foil for Amanda, matching her passion and intensity. He’s a young man with a ferocious longing to escape his narrow life as a clerk in a shoe warehouse, but bound by his love for both mother and sister, and always caught in the web of his conflicting desires. He has the strength to stand up to his formidable mother, but can’t bear the hurt he inflicts. He remains inextricably caught in Amanda’s loving but destructive web.
Knuppe’s Laura suggests a delicately pretty sensitive plant, longing for a human touch, but folding her leaves in fear when the touch comes. She is self-effacing but vivid, warming to the touch of her gentleman caller, but crushed when she realizes her dreams are doomed.
As the Gentleman Caller, Patrick Joseph Rieger is brash, naïve, well-meaning but clumsy. With only a vague understanding of the high hopes that Amanda and Laura have pinned on him, he does infinite damage by providing Laura momentarily with the sense of fulfillment she longs for, only to withdraw it. He brings enormous charm and diffidence to the role, embodying all its contradictions.
It is the play’s endless contradictions — depicting life’s double-binds — that make it so potent, and director Heller explores them with skill and tact. It’s as good a production as we are likely to see. The fragmented, atmospheric set by Joel Daavid, Jeffrey Porter’s lighting, Monica French’s costumes, Phi Tran’s evocative period props, and the uncredited music all contribute handsomely to the play’s evocation of the past in all its evanescence.
Greenway Arts Alliance at Greenway Court Theatre, 544 North Fairfax Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through June 14. (323) 655-7679, www.greenwaycourt.org.