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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Glass Menagerie In Marin

Also see Richard's review of A Little Night Music

The Marin Classic Theatre final production of the season is Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie at the The Playhouse in San Anselmo. This fledging community theater is going on hiatus and hopes to have some fundraisers in the future so they can continue in the spring of 2004. This community theater has presented some very good productions, especially in the genre of light comedy. Director Artie Gilbert has said that the company started with a Williams play and it was only proper to close with another of the master playwright's works.

The Glass Menagerie has always been a personal favorite of mine since it was one of the first dramatic plays I saw after I was discharged from the U.S. Army Air Corp near New York. I remember seeing the legendary Laurette Taylor starring in the drama at the Royal Theatre in 1946. Over the years, I have seen Maureen Stapleton, Julie Harris and Jessica Tandy play the role of the dominating mother. I had the extreme pleasure of working with Gertrude Lawrence on the film in 1950. The American Conservatory Theatre did a lovely version several years ago [see Richard's review]. Directors have tried various ways of presenting the Wingfield family of St. Louis and it is no easy task to present this ethereal and character-driven play.

Director Artie Gilbert has decided to go for a fast natural touch, and the "memory play" is now a play about a matriarchal harridan ruling her two children with an iron hand. Amanda, the mother, is usually a complex character with a certain genteel manner about her. As the play progresses, you are supposed to feel sorry for her, in a way. She is a person whose husband left her years ago, and she has had to raise an invalid daughter and a "poetic" son. Her only job is selling magazines over the telephone.

Stephanie Saunders Ahlberg plays Amanda as a harpy, and there is no saving grace in the character. Even when she briefly talks about her runaway husband, you cannot get sympathy for her. She is harsh and shrill, and I am reminded of the late Miriam Hopkins who played southern motormouth women who just never shut up. Ms. Ahlberg is a very good actress, but she needs to put a little humanity into the role. It is just a character of a verbose woman.

Nichole Zeller plays daughter Laura like a wounded bird. She looks and acts the part of a disabled daughter who loves her little glass animals. She is especially good in her shyness with the Gentlemen Caller in the second act. She radiates a certain delicate appeal.

Talented Ben Colteaux, who has done some excellent work in the past, has not mastered the delicate poetic version of Tom the son. His opening speech is supposed to tell the audience that we are to see a "memory character" and that the only real person is the Gentlemen Caller. This is a brilliant soliloquy and it sets the mood of the play. Unfortunately, Colteaux races through this speech. Though he may have had opening night nerves, the speech needs to be slowed down; each sentence must have meaning since it is a jewel of a speech. Colteaux finally gets into the character during the volatile dining room scene as Amanda harps on him about eating too fast. His account of the magician he has seen on the stage is beautifully accomplished. He gets into the spirit of the wannabe adventurous Tom.

Martin Cate plays the gentlemen caller Jim O'Connor. He makes the character just a little too crass, and his conversation with Laura is a little stilted. There is a good chance that all of these actors will grow into their roles as the play progresses.

Director Artie Gilbert has speeded up the scenes. There is a cinematic way of using blackouts that go on for a considerable length of time. These scenes do not flow smoothly since you can actually see the actors moving into various positions for the next scene, and there is a lot of shuffling of noise. Again, this could have been opening night problems.

Once again I am taking aback by the structure of this elongated stage since it always reminds me of the television lots on Warner's Burbank stage. There, you can have three separate sets for the sitcoms, with the audience sitting on the side, as if watching a football game. The intimacy of the Williams drama is lost in this long space. A good example takes place as Tom is addressing the audience about the family on the extreme left side - people sitting on the extreme right side lose the closeness of the play. The center stage is framed better with the dining room put toward the back of the stage on a riser.

The Glass Menagerie plays thru October 26 at The Playhouse, 27 Kensington Road, San Anselmo. For tickets call 415-892-8551 or visit www.MCTheatre.com.


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


- Richard Connema



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