September 17, 2002
The Glass Menagerie
(aired on WFAE, September 20)|
Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie is a staple of the American stage. Mention the names Tom, Amanda and Laura together, and theatergoers will automatically recall an angry and suppressed son, his dreamy, crippled sister, and their overbearing mother.
Charlotte Rep has imported a cast and a director to perform its season opener, under new Producing Artistic Director Michael Bush. They prove that humor can be hewn from sorrow, and that this story of family and fear and disappointment can be successful as both contemporary drama, and a moving period piece. Still, the theatre was not full on the first Saturday night.
Amanda is an abandoned wife, who in her prime received 17 gentlemen callers in a single day. Now she is saddled by a daughter who, encumbered by a physical defect and a wandering mind, promises to be an everlasting physical and financial burden. The family is grudgingly supported by son Tom, a writer who would prefer to be following his muse. They are all haunted by the father who left them years before, a traveling telephone salesman who “fell in love with long distances.” His portrait, intermittently illuminated from behind, plays a dominant role on their living room wall.
Life can be cruel to imperfect women. In St. Louis in the 1930's, Amanda sees two routes for Laura: business school or marriage. Having failed the former, Amanda is determined Laura will marry, despite her being a distracted dreamer who reacts to socializing with nausea.
Sounds grim, doesn’t it? But director Joseph Hardy has gleaned every possible twinkle of humor from the magnificent dialogue. In fact, there are several moments when the audience is flummoxed regarding appropriate response. We want to laugh, even while tragedy is bleeding slowly from the heart of the play. Such is the magic of theatre.
As Amanda, Tony and Emmy award winner Penny Fuller alternates between smothering her children with love, and with unrealistic expectations. But at the heart of her performance is despair driven by desperation. Caitlin Muelder’s dear, dear Laura is fresh as morning dew, and delicate as a dried bouquet. Her lumbering gait is in stark contrast to her ethereal manner, and we know immediately that she has neither the means, nor the will, to ever live up to her mother’s expectations. The world is too harsh for Laura, and in this production Amanda knows this, and it hurts to watch. Michael Milligan plays Tom with a British affectation reminiscent of William Buckley. Tom can afford to be arrogant, for as a man, only he has the means to escape his claustrophobic life.
A bed in the living room and an exposed fire escape on the perimeter of the set magnify Tom’s lack of privacy, and need his to escape. Laura’s glass menagerie occupies a side table, where she escapes the dullness of her own days amidst their sparkle.
The Rep is Charlotte’s only professional League of Resident Theatres company. There’s been recent chatter about a push to make Charlotte an arts destination. And with a thriving Arts and Science Council, that boasts the largest per capita fund raiser in the country, it is possible that we have the means to do so. However, there is little hope of that if a production of this caliber can’t fill the house.
Lynn Trenning, September 17, 2002