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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Tried and the True: The Glass Menagerie
at Two River Theatre

Also see Bob's review of The Housekeeper

The Two River Theatre Company revival of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, the play that rocketed Williams to fame when it was first produced on Broadway in 1945, is first class in all respects. It is solid proof that it can be best to trust the timeless verities and stage worthiness of great stage literature.

The narration and point of view is provided by Williams' surrogate, Tom Wingfield, who is reliving his final, dispiriting days at home with his family in a seedy St. Louis apartment. The 22-year-old Tom, who labors in a shoe factory, lives with his domineering mother Amanda and his 24-year-old sister, Laura. Tom, who provides most of the support for the household, has obtained his union card and is planning to make his getaway (something that his father had done many years earlier) by signing on to a merchant marine ship. The stay at home Laura, who is morbidly shy and walks with a limp, has dropped out of a secretarial (typing) course and is without prospects. The disappointed and delusional Amanda, who revels in regaling her children with embroidered stories of her youthful beauty and popularity with high level suitors – gentlemen callers – is obsessed with the idea that Laura's only prospect lies in corralling a suitor. Act one is titled "Preparations for a Gentlemen Caller" and concludes with preparations for the arrival of Jim O'Connor, a co-worker friend whom Tom has invited to the house. Act two, "The Gentlemen Calls," depicts the doomed, bittersweet dinner evening and its shattering aftermath.

The Glass Menagerie is set now (circa the mid 1940s) and in the past (circa the 1930s Depression). It is poetic, lyrical and fictional. It is heartfelt autobiography dealing with the emotions and people most central to Williams. It needs no gussying up. What it does need is fidelity, delicacy, and the polished skills of actors and theatre artisans to provide the setting, pace and tone to make it immediate and engaging to audiences.

There are no tour de force performances here. Director Robert M. Rechnitz has directed an ensemble performance in which the stories of each member of the Wingfield family, as well as that of The Gentleman Caller, carry a full and equal importance. Maureen Silliman gets her teeth into the rich role of Amanda Wingfield, but she doesn't gnaw at it. Her Amanda is far from the funniest or most heavily (Southern) accented one that I have seen. It is a most sensible and effective interpretation. Surely, I've enjoyed laughing at Amanda as she flatters herself with tales of her conquests and unsuccessfully tries to sell magazine subscription renewals over the phone. However, think about it, there is nothing really funny about this harridan who rips her daughter's heart out with her tales and blandishments. (In his life, Williams was very devoted to his mentally troubled sister, Rose. Eventually, against his wishes, his mother, Edwina had a frontal lobotomy performed on her with disastrous results.) And Silliman conveys the full horror of Amanda's heartbreakingly cruel response to the failed visit of The Gentleman Caller.

Letitia Lange is naturalistic and unhistrionic as the unable to cope Laura. When Laura is under stress, her limp becomes more accentuated. Her underplayed performance makes the doomed visit of The Gentlemen Caller and Amanda's cruel words thereafter especially poignant. Even more importantly, Lange's Amanda makes us feel that she could have overcome her physical and psychological problems if she had been blessed with a sensitive, nurturing mother. 

Andrew Pastides as Tom and William Connell as Jim, The Gentleman Caller, give perfectly matched performances. Both are young men whose lives have been on the downswing (Tom drinks and Jim has seen his youthful high hopes come to naught). As each plans to turn his life around, neither can be there to try to save Laura. Pastides and Connell give fine performances as a couple of young working guys still unsure of their future. However, these roles have within them poetic qualities which extend beyond realistic portraiture which have not been captured here.

The set and lighting design are terrific. Marion Williams has designed a large complex set which depicts rooms at distinct angles, alleyways, and fire escapes with a free-hanging ceiling for the parlor, and only a ceiling fixture for the smaller kitchen. The open "walls" allow support for wall hangings (particularly, a photograph and a wall cabinet which houses Laura's collection of miniature glass animal figurines.) The set creates free visual space which focuses our attention on the actors while it conveys the cramped, imprisoning feel of the apartment. The lighting design by Joel Moritz includes low wattage light fixtures for each room which contribute to the poetic memory feel of the piece. The stage lighting which augments the fixtures is relatively high, fully sufficient not to make the stage feel too distant. Still, it is totally unobtrusive and is unlikely to be noticed by any theatergoer who is not looking for it. Costume Designer Niki Hernandez-Adams has designed apt costumes which (for Amanda and Laura) fully capture the qualities described in the text.

This production of The Glass Menagerie and its director Robert M. Rechnitz can both be described as the tried and the true. The Two River Founder and Executive Producer, whose efforts brought about its exceptional Red Bank facility, directed the grand production of You Can't Take It With You which inaugurated it in 2005. With The Glass Menagerie, Rechnitz once again displays his exceptional talent for revitalizing classic American plays by restoring them to full size and recapturing their original pulse in order to make them new again.

The Glass Menagerie continues performances (Eves. Wed. – Sat, 8 pm/ Mats. Tues. 10 am/ Wed. 1 pm/ Sat. & Sun. 3 pm) through April 13 at the Two River Theatre Company (Rechnitz Theatre), 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org.

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams; directed by Robert Rechnitz
Cast:
Tom Wingfield…………Andrew Pastides
Amanda Wingfield…….Maureen Silliman
Laura Wingfield……………Letitia Lange
Jim O'Connor…..............William Connell


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- Bob Rendell



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