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The Glass Menagerie

Theatre Review by James Wilson - October 9, 2019

Matt de Rogatis, Ginger Grace, and Alexandra Rose
Photo by Chris Loupos

In the last fifteen years alone there have been several major New York revivals of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie. Sally Field, Cherry Jones, Judith Ivey, and Jessica Lange have headlined versions that have ranged in quality from brilliant to almost unwatchable. Williams's work is indeed a masterpiece, but these ventures have shown that the play is not impervious to eccentric interpretive whims. The Glass Menagerie is deceptively solid. Under the wrong directorial touch it is as delicate as Laura Wingfield's glass unicorn.

For this reason, Williams purists might cringe in fear while reading the description of the current production directed by Austin Pendleton and Peter Bloch at the Wild Project. Advance publicity describes the interpretation as if viewed "through the lens of a spooky dream." The advertising goes on to suggest that this version "borders on horror" with a new score inspired by The Exorcist soundtrack. In sum, the directorial tactic is promoted as "Wes Craven meets Tennessee Williams." Egads!

Mercifully, this Glass Menagerie has not become the stage equivalent of a slasher film. Tom is not an axe-wielding murderer, and Amanda has not become a filicidal Medea figure. To be sure, there are some ghostly elements. When he is not in a scene, for instance, Tom (Matt de Rogatis) lurks on the edges of the playing space. Similarly, Laura (Alexandra Rose) assumes an ethereal aura as she periodically appears staring blankly behind a scrim (effectively designed by Jessie Wolfram), and there are a few overwrought phantom menace moments when danger befalls the glass animals. Finally, there is a large, projected, out-of-frame photo to establish the spectral presence (and absence) of the Wingfield patriarch, "a telephone man — who fell in love with long distance."

Spencer Scott and Alexandra Rose
Photo by Chris Loupos

The design team accentuates the haunted theme without calling too much attention to the approach's underlying eeriness. Steve Wolf's lighting is appropriately moody and atmospheric, and Jessie Bonaventure's scenic elements cleverly incorporate a glass motif throughout. There are, for example, pieces of crystal organically molded into the furniture and embedded in various set pieces. Conversely, the costumes (provided by Arlene's Costumes) are vintage 1940s and help ground the play in historical specificity. Sean Hagerty's music is foreboding in the mode of horror film underscoring, but it is subtle, and like the other design elements, it does not overwhelm the play.

These visual and aural elements aside, the production's strength is in its respectfulness to the text. The actors do not overplay the subtext or portray the characters and nostalgic elements dripping with irony. In fact the directors and actors mine the lyricism in the playwright's words, and with apologies to Wes Craven, this small-scale revival suitably honors the spirit of Williams.

The cast is uniformly fine, but the actors still seem to be finding their characters. As Tom, the conjuring narrator and emotionally riven family breadwinner, de Rogatis is scrappy and feral. It is an interesting choice for a character conspiring to join the merchant marines. Yet the performance does not neatly square with the description of a frustrated poet (and as has been posited, a closeted gay man), who is referred to as "Shakespeare" by his less refined factory co-workers. Rose's Laura does not emanate debilitating vulnerability. Instead, she relies on gestures and facial expressions to suggest the character's acute social anxieties. Spencer Scott as Jim O'Connor, the Gentleman Caller, has the requisite charm, but he has not yet found ways to let slip the character's crushed aspirations.

The center of every Glass Menagerie is Amanda, the flitting, manipulative, and smothering mother of all mothers. Ginger Grace makes a valiant effort and generally succeeds. She effectively exudes the right amount of forced coquettishness, and she commendably conveys Amanda's raised and dashed hopes. In voice and presentation, however, Grace seems a little too East Coast. Occasionally, she emits a small snort when chuckling, and this is not wholly convincing for a woman who fashions herself a former southern belle.

Still, if this is not a Glass Menagerie for the ages, Pendleton and Bloch's version is a reminder of the play's power to cast a nostalgia-induced spell. Theatregoers looking for a stage thriller in the vein of Wait Until Dark, The Pillowman, or Killer Joe surely will be disappointed. Audiences hoping to spend a few hours with a classic American drama, on the other hand, will find much to appreciate.

The Glass Menagerie
Through October 20
Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: