In Peter Marks’ article in the Washington Post this weekend, Molly Smith, Artistic Director of Arena Stage, was quoted as saying that in theater today to survive is to thrive. Down alongside Washington’s southwest waterfront, there is something more than surviving going on in Smith’s still freshly minted Mead Center for American Theater. The partnership between Georgetown University and Arena Stage, now in its fifth year, is giving us a most exciting expression of how Arena has made good on its pledge to become more than just a place where plays are given sound professional productions but instead to “let a thousand flowers bloom” by becoming a mecca of artistic creativity, a center for the development, expression and study of American plays.
It’s as if the loving energy that went into this wonderful production of Tennessee Williams’ best known and most loved play, The Glass Menagerie, could not be contained but rather exploded out of the Kogod Cradle and into the halls. Students have developed artistic responses to Williams and this work, under the umbrella of The Glass Menagerie Project, included performances and art installations. The Mead Center is a hive of activity and buzz, but it’s The Glass Menagerie that hits the sweet spot.
The cast, made up of mostly GU recently graduated alumni and led by guest artist and faculty member Sarah Marshall as the matriarch Amanda Wingfield, gives a moving rendition of this play. Having seen upward of a dozen productions of The Glass Menagerie, I will confess I went thinking I certainly knew the work and didn’t necessarily need to see another production. I was surprised and delighted that these most able performers under the very capable direction of Derek Goldman, gave us a stirling production, professional in every degree. The four performers, Sarah Marshall, Rachel Caywood, Michael Mitchell, and Clark Young, got the balance deliciously right in their portrayal of this family.
The challenge in this play is how to play Amanda, the nagging, ever talkative single mom who alternately dreams of her better days when she was courted by umpteen gentleman callers and then tries desperately to hitch her daughter up with a suitable future provider. Williams has in some ways stacked the deck by having us see the mother through the eyes of her son, Tom, who is both character and narrator of the drama. Too flighty and Amanda comes across as the southern version of a shrinking violet. Too forceful and she becomes an unsympathetic monster that Tom all too understandably wants to escape by falling in love with long distance like his absent dad.
Always a powerful actress, Sarah Marshall can also, at times, paint things a bit broadly, but here she has transformed herself into the body and soul of Amanda, delivering a nuanced performance that unforgettably etches moment to moment of this woman’s struggle. Sometimes her voice and body flutter and land light as a butterfly, at other times she springs forward like a powerful big feline to back down her angry young son in order to get him to do right by his sister. Her Amanda, we can see, was terribly wounded by her husband’s desertion of her and the family, and that heart still feels its pain and loss freshly every time she talks of him. But she is also resourceful, someone who has scraped and done whatever was necessary so she and her children could survive. It is so clear in Marshall’s performance that her children are the love of her life, but her Amanda is also the lone extrovert in the house and she talks to drown out what for her is the terrifying silence. She seems to be saying she can’t help herself, and there is that wonderfully expressive Sarah Marshall mouth that clamps together as she tries unsuccessfully to button up.
It is only when Michael Mitchell comes on as the Irish American pal of Tom’s that Amanda’s house fills up with sounds and energy that matches her own. Mitchell looks and acts like the young man who has signed up for every personal development course in the universe, the epitome of the optimist and get-ahead guy. His leggy leaps around the living room trying to liven things up for Laura’s benefit were marvelously funny. It was completely believable that not only could Rachel Caywood, who plays the crippled and painfully shy Laura, have a crush on him but that his energy would be so infectious that he would coax her out of her shell. Caywood perhaps lacks some of the incandescence of what I have come to associate with Laura, a character based on William’s mentally ill sister Rose. Nonetheless, Caywood has moments of great pathos. She and Mitchell are tenderly awkward and quite delightful in their big scene together.
Outstanding in the show is Clark Young as Tom Wingfield. His icy blue eyes seem haunted, staring out from his deep brown skin, as if they want to jump out from that skin and run away just as his character so wants to do. Young Tom is a tortured man, gnawing at his innards as he continues to sabotage himself. When he bears down on his mother and screams at her as she lies stretched out on the sofa, it’s a release of the violence that’s been long coiled within. It’s as if this Tom carries all the anger of every young man trying to break away from a mother whom you know will always haunt him. This role seems meant for Young. His Tom has neither found what he wants nor the peace of trusting that the universe will guide him.
The set designed by Robbie Hayes was sensitive to Williams’ original stage directions, comprised of two rooms that reached back like a box car and was bordered stage left by a fire escape where Tom can escape his mother’s coils to go out and smoke. The walls with the paint and most of the plaster pulled off created a skeleton of a home with its bones all exposed. This beautifully realized world, fragile as Laura’s glass collection, seemed to glow and float in a sea of darkness. Jared Mezzocchi, Video /Imagery Designer had created seven vertical windowpane screens filled with projections of a harsh industrial world of St. Louis. Together with Colin K. Bills, lighting designer, they have created the magical world of memory and illusion that was Tennesee Williams’ impulse. Inside, Amanda works with old bits of lace curtain to create a softer more feminine, southern world where she hovers, trying to protect her two children from the harsher realities of a new world order. Outside this framing, the angles and sounds of metal gratings represents the world beyond, a violent and sinister urban world.
Having just returned from Spoleto, the international theatre festival that was started by superstar Carlo Menotti over three decades ago and is still going strong, I know the way a place and its programming can draw in locals and visitors alike who want to be part of a zeitigest. I felt the same way being under the glass cage of Bing Thom’s restored Arena for a good part of this weekend. Across from the Kogod, the blockbuster Grisham’s A Time to Kill has been adapted for the stage. Ethan McSweeny’s sure-paced direction and the fabulous installation of 10 televisions and light play set to the haunting melodies of steel guitars, all making for an exciting performance despite some flaws. Most exciting of all were the people in the audience who had come out. Some of them I spoke to had never been to Arena Stage or to other local theatre but they were there to compare the book to the movie and the movie to the play. There was more diversity of age and race in that crowd than I’d ever experienced in a show in this town.
Creative activity seemed to be in evidence everywhere you looked in the building. In a nook in the hallway, there was a young teenage nerd typing on what looked to be an old typewriter that signaled old film clips of William’s several works. On the way to the high entrance of the Kogod Cradle was “the overstuffed chair,” an installation that used the metaphor of a “sadder than blue” chair to hold comfortable old memories of the family, as Williams himself said. Georgetown University students poured in to see their friends be part of something. The GU related performances included classroom exercises and research, some of them a little precious and others a complete send up to be sure. But we were all there to refract the light of this great, classic American drama.
Here’s a final tip for those of you who want to catch this beautiful production. Do yourself a favor when you go the Kogod Cradle. Enter the space as it was initially intended from the top and wind down like a pilgrim. If you are fortunate to have a Board of Directors member as a willing and enthusiastic guide so much the better, but it is not necessary. You will prepare yourself for some pure magic in this place. You will be as enchanted as I was by performances as beautifully crystalline as the animals of Laura’s menagerie.
The Glass Menagerie
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Derek Goldman
Produced by Georgetown University Theater and Performance Studies Program in Partnership with Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes including one intermission