SALT LAKE CITY — March 26, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Tennessee Williams’ birth. Salt Lake Community College’s The Grand Theatre is commemorating this by presenting The Glass Menagerie, Williams’ first major success. The play is said to be based loosely on Williams’ life with the main characters being based on himself, his mother and sister.
Tom Wingfield, based on Williams himself, introduces the characters of this “memory play.” They are Amanda, Tom’s mother and former genteel southern belle; Laura, his crippled older sister, who dropped out of school and has no prospects for her future; Tom, himself, who is frustrated with his life and job at a shoe warehouse and dreams of a more adventurous life, and Jim O’Connor, a co-worker of Tom’s who comes as an unknowing “gentleman caller.” The final character in the play is never seen – Mr. Wingfield who left the family years ago with only a single postcard since.
I must preface this review by stating that this is the first Tennessee William’s play I have ever seen. I have seen a movie adaptation of this play long ago on television with Sam Waterston and Katherine Hepburn, but have not seen any other of his works or read any in any literature class, so I come to this a neophyte. My previous knowledge of William’s plays pretty much consisted of the belief that they were all downers. The Glass Menagerie definitely fits the stereotype, but it is so much more. Being a memory play, you don’t expect everything to be honest and realistic, but there is so much truth in this play. Also, this production has gone back to Williams’ original intentions which include musical themes and a projection screen on which titles and pictures as projected to delineate themes in the play.
First and foremost, I must praise Jayne Luke. I have seen her in numerous roles throughout Utah and have always found her to be stunning. As Amanda, she is scintillating. She is the very picture of a faded southern belle, and her embodiment of Amanda is complete; both wonderful and horrifying to behold. When she is recalling her “gentleman callers” or the summer she had “malaria fever” she sparkles like Scarlet O’Hara on the porch at Tara. By contrast, when she is selfishly haranguing Tom for his “selfish” ways, she does so with such bile and vitriol that one cringes in common discomfort. She becomes Amanda so completely that all vestiges of Jayne Luke disappear behind this mask. An absolutely stunning performance.
John Graham as Tom has the look of a man slowly being worn down by the grit of his bleak life. I was struck by the quietly commanding presence he is throughout the play. You feel the disdain he has for his remembered life, yet the softness he displays toward Laura is endearing.
Lauren Noll as Laura is truly heartbreaking. She portrays the fragility of the glass animals that Laura so adores. The pain she exhibits when describing the events that led to her leaving the business school is palpable. However the highlight of the evening is the scenes between her and Matt Whittaker as Jim O’Connor, the “suitor” Tom brings home for Laura.
Mr. Whittaker creates a Jim that is the perfect foil to the Wingfield family. He is confident, self-assured, out-going and amiable, and while he may not have lived up to his full potential just yet, you sense that he is generally on the right track. The easy grace of the conversation that he and Laura share fills the play with the first real light that you feel in this play, made all the more ironic that the lights have just gone out. You get the first glimpse of Laura as a complete human being with similar difficulties to everyone else, rather than the cripple that her family believes her to be. All this makes Jim’s final revelation all the more poignant and heartbreaking.
Director Mark Fossen has given this amazing cast a wonderful framework to hang this family tragedy on. You feel that the action is almost organic; his directorial hand has vanished into the warp and weft of the play’s fabric and that is true artistry. Scenic design by Gage Williams, costume design by Brenda Van der Wiel, and hair and makeup by Yancey J. Quick capture the time period beautifully. Lighting design by Spencer Brown really display the dream-like quality of memory. The only real complaint that I have with the production was that the projections screens were placed at the back of the stage, behind set pieces, and were therefore very difficult to effectively see and read. That may or may not be true from other locations in the house.
One other note: On opening night, the start of the show was delayed by quite some time when a fire alarm went off, and we were all required to leave the building. Following the all clear, there was very little delay between this and the start of the show. Owing to this and the tragically small audience, it could be expected that the performance and performers might have suffered; they did not. And we were all treated to a wonderful night with one of the greatest of all dramas. As an actor I know the distractions that can affect a performance, and thankfully this cast is all professional enough to overcome that and provide a stunning performance. Don’t cheat yourself of one of the truly great pleasures in life. This is a “Glass Menagerie” to be savored and enjoyed.