Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Glass Menagerie
The first blow to the head for the audience, and it's not entirely unpleasant, comes from Brenda Currin as Amanda Wingfield. In the script, she says she stays up nights worrying about her children. But she is the least neurotic, least dragon-like, most genteel and practical-minded Amanda out of the five or six I've seen. Despite her relative lack of anxiety, Ms. Currin is outstanding as a faded Southern belle. In real life, the Tennessee Williams family moved up north from his maternal grandfather's very proper church home in rural Mississippi, to the filthy, crowded, industrial city of Saint Louis.
The big childhood move for Williams came after the playwright's own Stanley Kowalski of a father got promoted from traveling salesman up to an administrative job at the nation's fourth-largest shoe warehouse. It was not a happy change of circumstances, partly because the father was home every night, and he was very different from Williams' mother. But on stage here the only thing that might drive the fictional Mrs. Wingfield's two fatherless children crazy is Ms. Currin's hyper-realism, at which she excels. She stammers a lot at the beginning of lines, trusting that the correct words will bubble up in her mind, sooner or later. We worry, time and again, that she is living through the Actor's Nightmare, there before us. It is bracingly spontaneous. It also drove me the tiniest bit crazy, too, as a substitute for the domineering attitude of the usual overbearing ogress in the role. The only downside (beyond the loss of familiar energy, and a lot of very particular melodrama) is that she is so nice that she makes her two children seem hateful in their scripted reactions, compared to the usual dialectics.
Her choice is probably still artistically valid, even if Tom and Laura now look a bit more like the ungrateful children Regan and Goneril. Still, Ms. Currin reminds me of the great Geraldine Page, a master of discovery, in her work on film. But that same approach lacks straightforwardness here, and does not entirely comport with what we know of the real-life woman, Edwina Dakin Williams, and her exhausting chatterbox nature. That's seen afresh through the quotes of her son's friends, in Henry I. Schvey's evocative new book "Blue Song: St. Louis in the Life and Work of Tennessee Williams" (University of Missouri Press, 2021). Rather than rattled or runaway, Ms. Currin displays an exceedingly tentative but status-conscious mindset as Amanda Wingfield, with true grace and deference. You have to allow for artistic freedomit can't all be just cult or camp, right? Even if it has served as a monument to a very particular part of our history for a generation or two of theatergoers. But so much dynamism is lost, and the other actors here have virtually no obstacle to push back against from this Amanda. There's great audacity in being so "in-the-moment," but this is not the role for it.
The other somewhat pleasant blow to the head comes from the casting of handsome Bradley James Tejeda as Tom, beguiling narrator and an anguished character in this memory play, which first debuted in 1944 in Chicago, before moving to Broadway the following year. Do handsome young men struggle as much to find success? It probably doesn't matterafter a settling-in period, we soon forget Mr. Williams himself, and with him the playwright's layers of awkwardness: his own anxiety, his Percy Dovebreath voice, and an utter lack of athleticism. (In looking at old YouTube videos of previous productions, I find that Tom is usually handsome but, as often as not, plagued with anxiety.)
Somehow, Mr. Tejeda works through the curse of his own good looks, and his first and last monologues, delivered up on a black fire escape, are outstanding. However, there seems to be a lack of an almost feminine desperation in his demeanor, compared to other Toms. And when he should momentarily rise to become the equal of his oppressor, in his big outburst against this courtly and diplomatic Amanda, he inadvertently overwhelms her, coming across as too strong and hostile. (Speaking of the young playwright's desperation, in that new book, Williams is quoted as imagining that the skeletal urban fire escapes, like the one that forms the backdrop of this set by the always-inspired Dunsi Dai, might one day coil up and crush these helpless city dwellers in a snake-like grasp.)
So if you will pardon an unpleasant gay aphorism: there are apparently "no fats, fems, or flakes" in the post (post) pandemic version of Tennessee Williams' world. Here, it's only muscles and jocks and guys-next-door (and I suppose you could lump in this particular Amanda Wingfield as a member of the ladies' auxiliary of the "no-flakes" division). It isn't transcendent, but works well enough, because Mr. Tejeda, and hunky Chauncy Thomas as the Gentleman Caller, are also serious, feeling, intelligent actors, like Ms. Currin.
You might never know the difference, between this and the nightmarish life that inspired The Glass Menagerie, unless you too had lived through the bad old days, the truly hopeless times, in repressive St. Louis, or places like itwhere hating on the gays seemed the most popular pastime, after baseball, while your parents exulted in their own glorious self-imaginings. And of course (in the old days) the Gentleman Caller would never be black, because Soldan High School, where the three younger characters all went, was certainly not integrated in the 1930s. However, as a matter of honoring the utterly segregated black community here, color-blind casting seems like a very nice innovation in this case.
Under the direction of Mr. Hohlfeld, each actor still manages to find some new form of the expected anguish and hopelessness to more or less fill out the shape of the play, in spite of his or her own natural assets. Elizabeth Teeter, as Laura, is the least revisionist: she's an Alice who never got through her own looking-glass, who never escaped the prison of her own reflection (with a pronounced limp, and what would later be diagnosed as a form of schizophrenia). In her own fealty to the original spirit of the play, she found favor with the gods of outdoor theater on opening night, during the painful confession of the Gentleman Caller near the end. That scene was twice drowned out by huge fire engines rolling by, half a block north, in a long roar of sirens and diesel engines and a spectacular welter of red lights. Mr. Thomas paused naturalistically a few times as the loud sirens and plenteous strobing flashes went on and on. But the interruption added an unexpected "psychotic break" lighting-effect to Ms. Teeter's silent sense of doom, as he explained the impossibility of their budding romance.
At its best, The Glass Menagerie still plays like an even scarier version of Sartre's No Exit, with family members dogging one another back and forth across the outdoor stage. That much of the horror and dread could not be gilded over by this production's newly imposed looks and charm and grace. Like its light poetic wordplay, that darkest glass remains unbreakable.
Face masks and advanced ticket purchase are required. I like to bring a chair pad to these outdoor productions, and a cold bottle of water, and even surreptitiously put an ice-bag wrapped in a kitchen towel in my lap, against the heat, as the audience sits in hard plastic chairs on an asphalt parking lot in the middle of August in the city Tennessee Williams despised. There's also free parking just north, across the alley, at the Presbyterian Church at Olive and Walton.
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis' The Glass Menagerie runs through August 29, 2021, in repertory with You Lied to Me about Centralia, Why Did Desdemona Love the Moor, and The Moon and Beyond. For more information, visit www.twstl.org/. All tickets must be purchased online at www.metrotix.com.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association