April 4 Syracuse Stage: The Glass Menagerie

Photo by Michael Davis

Photo by Michael Davis

Syracuse Stage’s ‘The Glass Menagerie’ returns to the roots, and vision, of the Tennessee Williams classic

But it takes an open mind to reap the rewards of this engaging ‘memory play’

By Malkiel Choseed

Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie opens to a dimly lit stage.  Windows and fire escapes hang suspended in air, creating an illusion that we are peering into the side of an apartment building in 1930s St. Louis.  With the rest of the stage dark, the character of Tom — dressed in the distinct navy blue of a merchant marine — proceeds to address the audience.

“The play is memory, he tells the audience.  “Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.”

Williams broke from convention with the introduction of this new genre, called “memory play.”  By breaking the fourth wall (the imaginary wall at the front of the stage separating the actors from the audience) and instructing the audience to set aside its expectations, Williams put viewers on notice that this play was unlike others.  Timothy Bond and the Syracuse Stage cast and production team have embraced this unconventionality in The Glass Menagerie, giving a contemporary audience a taste of what Williams had wanted in the play’s original 1944 run.

To be sure, the “taste” offered by Bond and company might not suit everyone’s palate: Audience members must enter Williams’s world with an open mind if they expect to be rewarded with an engaging and moving theatrical experience.  But if you like Tennessee Williams, you’ll no doubt love this production.

The plot of this American classic is relatively simple.  Amanda Wingfield (Elizabeth Hess) is a domineering, aging southern belle who — like the flowers on her dress — is fading.  Inextricably stuck in the past, Amanda constantly worries about the future of Laura (Adriana Gaviria), her painfully shy and partially disabled daughter who walks with a limp and is described as “crippled.”  Afraid of the outside world, Laura retreats ever further into fantasy, armed with her Victrola and collection of miniature glass figurines in the shape of animals.  Laura’s brother Tom (Joseph Midyett) works to support the family in a warehouse but is a frustrated poet, chaffing at his familial responsibilities.  In an effort to appease his mother and provide a gentleman caller and potential suitor for Laura, Tom invites co-worker and former schoolmate Jim O’Connor (Michael Kirby) to dinner.

The drama that ensues focuses less on whether Laura can charm Jim and more on the ways in which these characters will or will not come to grips with reality — accepting it, or fleeing even further into fantasy.  This central conflict is complicated by the fact that The Glass Menagerie is explicitly a “memory play.”  As Director Timothy Bond explained in a press release:

With The Glass Menagerie especially, Williams pushed the American theatre in a new and less realistic direction … His [Williams’] original vision for the play called for projections of words and images, elements rarely if ever used in productions of the play, and for the use of music.  For this production, I’ve embraced and have been inspired by Williams’ original vision.

All the production elements — from costumes to lighting to the musical score — work together seamlessly to help Bond achieve this vision.  Scenic Designer William Bloodgood’s highly stylized and starkly beautiful set underscores the premise that the scenes presented are viewed through the lens of memory.  Kate Freer’s attractive projection design also deserves special mention.  At one point, the entire stage (actors included) is washed in images of blue roses — which is visually breathtaking and highlights the poetry, and the symbolism, of Williams’s dialogue.

The acting is purposefully hyperbolic.  The action is, after all, taking place in the realm of the memory.  To audience members expecting something more concrete, it can be somewhat disconcerting to see characters as exaggerated as this.  To their credit, the actors bring both life and truth to what could easily be reduced to simple caricatures.  Gaviria, Hess, Kirby, and Midyett use their voices in convincing fashion (Midyett’s closing monologue is especially appealing) and use body language in ways that further their characters and the plot.

The Glass Menagerie is required reading in many high schools and college literature classes, but to see it acted so well adds an important dimension to one’s appreciation of Williams’s classic.  For example, Midyett’s body language, shrinking and growing depending on his proximity to his mother, illustrates his character’s conflicted relationship.  Casting Kirby (who stands almost a full head taller than the other actors) as the gentleman caller also illustrates his “outsized” expectations, both with respect to himself and Amanda Wingfield’s overblown hopes for a man capable of saving Laura.

Tom and Amanda dominate the first act, and Jim and Laura are given center stage in the second.  Generally speaking, all the actors in this production are excellent.  But Elizabeth Hess steals the show as the over-the-top, borderline histrionic Amanda Wingfield.  Hess’s sweeping graceful gestures, as she figuratively (and sometimes literally) dances across the stage, grab the attention of audience at every turn.

The strength of the present Syracuse Stage production is that it returns to the roots Tennessee Williams’s original vision.  Bond and his cast and crew combine to make this 70-year-old play as relevant, and moving, as it was in 1944.

Details Box:
What: The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
Who: Syracuse Stage
Where: Archbold Theatre, Syracuse Stage Complex, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse
, NY
Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Friday, April 4, 2014 (opening night)
Remaining performances: Plays through April 27
Length: About 2 hours and 30 minutes, including 15 minute intermission
Tickets: $30-$52; $18 children under 18 and SU students; $35 under 40
Call: 315-443-3275 or
Family guide: Appropriate for all ages

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