The Glass Menagerie at the Cell Theatre
By Steven Robert Allen
First staged in Chicago in 1944, The Glass Menagerie launched Tennessee Williams' superstar career. Following the huge success of the play, he went on to become a household name, composing a string of enduring American classics. Despite his success, of course, Williams' life was famously miserable from start to finish, and he mined his unhappiness more thoroughly than any other American writer of the 20th century.
Like many of his most famous plays, The Glass Menagerie presents a darkly comic view of human lives tainted by alcoholism, loneliness, mental illness and crushing existential disappointment. It's a sugar-coated pill, chock full of fast-paced flourishes of humor, but at its core the play is pure venom.
The Fusion Theatre Company is currently performing a new production of the play, directed by Fred Franklin, at the Cell Theatre. Despite a few relatively minor flaws, this Fusion version succeeds in communicating the play's impressive balance of dizzying comedy and bleak, soul-smashing tragedy.
The play's narrator, Tom (Vic Browder), works at a warehouse while aspiring to become a famous poet. He'd like to travel and have a few adventures, but he must continue toiling at his dead end job to support his divorced mother, Amanda (Laurie Thomas), and his neurotically shy sister, Laura (Jacqueline Reid).
Amanda is a bitter, overbearing former Southern belle who's terrified Laura will end up a spinster. She enrolls her daughter in a business college but soon discovers Laura has secretly dropped out because of a crippling fear of social interaction. Laura's isolated life revolves around collecting tiny glass animals that are as fragile physically as she is emotionally.
Meanwhile, Tom is tortured by the thought that he may have to support his mom and sis for the remainder of his life. Grouchy and miserable, he takes solace in movies and liquor.
Following persistent badgering by Amanda, Tom agrees to invite one of his co-workers, Jim (Ross Kelly), home to dinner with the intention of having him meet and fall in love with Laura. We soon learn that Laura knew this gentleman caller in high school and had an awkward crush on him. By some crazy miracle, Jim gets along swimmingly with Laura, and a true romance seems to be in the works. Since this play takes place in the great stormy state of Tennessee Williams, however, everything must end badly, and it does—so, so badly. Thankfully, the play's hilarity keeps it from sinking into a lightless pit, and the cast, especially Thomas and Kelly, know how to milk this teat for laughs.
Whenever Thomas is on the stage, she owns it. As the woman seated behind me said, "She's so good I felt like slapping her." Amen, sister. Thomas creates such a stylized, exotic Amanda, the character almost seems like a caricature. Yet Amanda is in many ways the most mysterious and intriguing personality in the play. Thomas paints a masterful portrait of a desperate, abandoned middle-aged woman who is simultaneously sympathetic to the audience and intolerable to everyone around her.
As the overly enthusiastic, hyper-ambitious gentleman caller, Kelly is uproariously funny. He nails some of the best physical gags in the show.
To my ears, Browder's accent and diction seemed inconsistent at times. Browder, one of the undeniable stars of Albuquerque theater, put in a competent performance, but on opening night he wasn't in top form.
Reid mainly plays a wallflower in the first half of the performance, but her character blossoms during the final scenes, almost stealing the show from Thomas. She seems so breakable here, a fragile soul demanding protection. As she opens herself to Jim, you can almost see her flesh and bones transforming to glass in front of you then shattering to a thousand pieces during the inevitable unhappy ending. Reid's vulnerability is excruciating to watch, but during these later scenes it's impossible to tear your eyes away from her.
Ornamented with lace screens, large quotations from the play and a sliding door frame, the set seems overly complicated, inelegant and distracting. The one truly ingenious aspect of the staging is the living portrait of Amanda's slimy ex-husband positioned in the middle of the set. Played with smarmy poise by Kelly, this winking, grinning photograph provides some of the play's funniest moments. It also serves as a smart thematic bridge between the man who abandoned the family and the gentleman caller Amanda hopes will replace him.
I'm personally grateful that Fusion continues to present polished, professional stagings of Tennessee Williams' plays each season. The Glass Menagerie may not be the best in the series, but the fantastic stretches in the performance are long and dazzling enough to make this production well worth the price of admission.
The Glass Menagerie, a play by Tennessee Williams directed by Fred Franklin, runs through Aug. 16 at the Cell Theatre. $22 general, $17 students/seniors. Thursday rush: $10 students (with valid ID), $15 actors (with pro résumé). Group rates available. 766-9412.
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