Previously Published in the South Florida Blade November 2009
“Glass breaks so easily. No matter how careful you are.” a fragile Laura tells her Gentleman Caller in The Broward Stage Door Theatre’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ classic The Glass Menagerie. An impressive cast of South Florida newcomers lead the charge in this faithful and often heartbreaking production of one of Williams’ first and arguably finest works.
Williams’ self professed, semi-autobiographical, first critically successful stage work originally written as a screenplay with ideas stemming from one of his short stories, opens with Tom Wingfield, (David Hemphill) alone on a fire escape. According to Tom, “This play is memory.” Through a series of dreamlike memories we are introduced to his peculiar, crippled older sister Laura (Betsy Graver), who is the keeper of a literal menagerie of small glass figurines in a small lower class apartment in 1930’s St. Louis. Worried about Laura’s marital future and fearful of Tom’s desire to leave home, like her husband did years before, their mother, Amanda Wingfield (Janet Weakley) desperately seeks to find Laura a suitor. At his mother’s insistence, Tom brings a co-worker home to dinner and unbeknownst to the Gentlemen Caller Jim (Nick Duckart) and against the wishes of Laura, Amanda tragically attempts to secure Laura’s future.
Director Michael Leeds successfully and delicately guides the cast through Williams’ heavily atmospheric “memory play” with only a few directorial missteps. Tentatively, Williams originally added projected images to the script that were subsequently cut from the first production when it premiered in Chicago in 1944. Leeds adds several of these images back into the script, to little effect through the use of Nick Duckart, the same actor playing the Gentlemen Caller in the last scene. This double casting helps to diminish the power of the Gentlemen Caller’s much anticipated first entrance in the final scene. Many sub-textual currents are blighted as too much stage business obscures the simple truths in the text and prevents the actors from authentically talking to one another.
Additionally, the potential for violence that this family drama contains never comes to a head and simply fizzles out, and would create an almost comic affect, if the climactic scenes weren’t book ended by some of the evening’s finest moments. Jim and Laura’s candle-lit interlude in the second half is simple, honest and heartwarming, as is Tom’s last few moments watching Laura blowing the candles out after she has been metaphorically broken by her pre arranged and unwanted Gentleman Caller.
Duckart is so charming in the role of Laura’s Gentleman Caller, that we feel badly for him when he ultimately rejects the fragile Laura, who is subtly and maturely played by the beautiful young Graver. Hemphill’s Tom guides us through the story with a slick heartfelt authenticity that is matched by all the younger actors in the show. Keep your eyes on these three.
Unfortunately, the kids are running this show. Williams’ almost iconic Amanda is played too softly by Weakley and lacks the drive, passion and aggressiveness that make Amanda one of Williams’ finest female roles. Amanda’s maternal instinct to protect her youngest ultimately leads to the plays tragic end and although charming as she is, Weakley’s mugging and ungrounded physicality turn this fierce maternal determination to mere doting. Regardless of this, she does have some fine moments and her joyful playing of the Gentleman Caller’s visit is lovely.
Tom tells us of his father “There is a fifth character in the play who doesn’t appear except in this larger-than-life size photograph over the mantle.” Scenically, this powerful presence never manifests itself due to the very small portrait mounted on the stage, with what appears to be a modern television wall mount.
Several central scenic elements seem to have been added onto the stage as an after thought. Laura’s refuge, her glass menagerie, looks like a crystal chess set haphazardly placed on two end tables. Several practical set elements, such as drawers and keyholes that do not work quite right, or even exist. Despite these minor details the heavily laden soundscape and moody lighting design succeeds in creating the dream-like quality intended by Tennessee Williams, as evidenced in his preface to the original script.
Smart direction, fine performances combined with Williams’ masterful storytelling breath life into a timeless classic, making this production of The Glass Menagerie a must see.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE
By Tennessee Williams; directed by Michael Leeds; sets by Stage Door Scenic; costumes by Marylin Wick of Costume World Theatrical; lighting by Ardean Landhuis; sound design by Martin Mets; properties Nancy Clay: wigs by Meredith Anzalone; produced by Derelle W. Bunn & David R. Torres; stage manager, Des Kenny; At the Stage Door Theatre, 8036 West Sample Road, Coral Springs, FL; (954) 344-7765. Through Nov. 1. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.
WITH: David Hemphill (Tom) Janet Weakley (Amanda), Betsy Graver (Laura) and Nick Duckart (Jim).
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