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San Francisco by Richard Connema

ACT Presents The Glass Menagerie
at the Geary Theater

Also see Richard's review of Babes in Arms


The American Conservatory Theatre is currently presenting Tennessee Williams' drama The Glass Menagerie. This was the playwright's first successful play and the leading character, Amanda, was a prototype for Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. This American classic first made its appearance in Chicago in December, 1944. There were major problems during those weeks of rehearsal, including the drinking problem of Laurette Taylor. There were many nights when she was drunk on stage and the audience knew it. The advance was so anemic that the producers thought about closing the play after the disastrous previews. However, everything came together on opening night and Chicago critics gave the play breathlessly glowing reviews. In fact, two of the major critics kept coming back night after night raving about the breakthrough drama. The play was described as "dreamlike" and "ethereal" and broke new ground, since most productions at the time depended on naturalism rather then being "memory plays." By the middle of January, it was impossible to obtain a ticket.

The Glass Menagerie opened in New York at the Playhouse on March 14, 1945, with Ms. Taylor going "on the wagon." The cast included Julie Haydon as Laura, Anthony Rose as the Gentleman Caller and director Eddie Dowling took on the role of Tom. On opening night, the cast took an astonishing 25 curtain calls. I was able to see the great Laurette Taylor in the role in 1945, and remember it as one of the greatest acting performances that I have ever seen.

A little side story about the New York opening that was going around the city at the time is that, on opening night, famed critic George Jean Nathan sent a bottle of scotch to Ms. Taylor with a good luck note. The actress was livid and sent back a note to Mr. Nathan that said, "Thanks for the note of confidence."

I was also privileged to have worked for Irving Rapper who directed the Warner Bros. film version of the play, and I had a chance to renew my acquaintance with Gertrude Lawrence who played the dominating mother, Amanda. In 1987, Paul Newman directed another film version of the drama with his wife Joanna Woodward playing that role. It was a disaster and the critics ravaged the film. As a result it played only in a few theaters and then was shelved, never to be heard of again.

Tennessee Williams' gem has played on many regional theater stages over the years. It has also been made into television plays several times and most of the time Amanda has been played softly and wistfully. Laird Williamson, the director of the ACT production, decided to go a different route to appeal to today's audience. The play has become a naturalistic piece with some comedy put into the production. It is no longer dreamlike or airy. Amanda now has an edge and she is somewhat of a "Jewish" dominating woman with some of her lines being very comical. Actually, it works on today's audience who want more realistic things on the stage, and on opening the night the young theater students in the second balcony of the Geary Theater were laughing up a storm at the lines.

The Glass Menagerie takes place in a small run-down apartment in St. Louis in 1937. The narrator, Tom, tells the audience what is occurring in the world at the beginning of the play so we can get the mood of the times. He also explains that his father, who was a telephone lineman, ran away from home many years back, thus making Tom the breadwinner of the family. He says that his mother Amanda received a postcard from her husband who was in Mexico many years ago. It just said, "Hello," and, "Goodbye." Amanda is a meddling and nagging woman who is very hard to live with. Laura, Tom's sister, is a frightened and terribly shy girl with unbelievably weak nerves. She is also slightly lame in one leg so she stays mostly in the house playing with her collection of delicate little glass animals. Amanda, who was a southern social butterfly with many gentleman callers in her youth, now wants to find a gentleman caller to call on Laura in the expectation that this man will take care of Laura for the rest of her life. Many agree that this dysfunctional family is based on the playwright's real family.

The small cast is excellent with New York actress Robin Moseley making her ACT debut as the demanding Amanda. She is overbearing but somehow we know that she loves her children almost to the point of being neurotic. Ms. Moseley, who was in The Sisters Rosenweig and Hapgood in New York, is outstanding in the role. Joey Collins, another New York actor who appeared recently in The Lonesome West and Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine, gives a genuine and realistic performance as Tom. He manages to catch the desperation of living in a house with a dominating mother and a lame sister. He wants adventure and he can only find it by going to the movies every night. My only fault with his acting is that he appears to be playing in an O'Neill play rather then a Williams drama. He also seems a little too energetic for a failed poet.

New ACT actress Heidi Armbruster gives a luscious, gentle performance as Laura. She has a ghostly luminosity about her and she plays the role beyond pathos. It is an extraordinary performance for this young actress. She should go far on the acting track. Neil Hopkins, another young member of the ACT company, plays Jim the gentlemen caller. He is properly boisterous and very self centered and he gives a good account of himself in the big scene of the second act.

Even though the play is naturalistic, the set is surreal with the small, rundown apartment center stage surrounded by a fire escape and a sign lighting up with the word 'Paradise' (the ballroom across the street) while washing hangs out on lines on the right side. There is an impressionist view of the cityscape in the background. It is an effective set and the lighting is choice. The play is an exquisite balance of delicacy, irony and power, and this is one of ACT's best productions this year.

The Glass Menagerie plays through April 28. Tickets are $15 to $61. Call (415)749-2228 for tickets or visit www.act-sfb.org. The next production will be For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, starring Olympia Dukakis and Marco Barricelli. It opens on May 4.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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