Just when you think you don’t have it in you to see a classic play for the bazillionth time and you clump to your seat thinking that it is too dang nice out to sit in the dark for nearly three hours and that the Orioles really need your support, something happens.
A set by Daniel Ettinger bathed in melancholy blue-violet light beckons—its lamp-lit windows suggesting secrets and small comforts within, its maze of fire escapes and clotheslines revealing the busybody life of this down on its heels back-alley neighborhood in St. Louis. A gauzy curtain in the middle of the stage partially obscures a cramped apartment filled with relics of a better life. Boozy, jazzy music drifts in, is it “Frankie and Johnny?”
And so we succumb to the world of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, a world reinvented with vigor and grace in director Vincent M. Lancisi’s superbly balanced, visually and emotionally intoxicating production currently at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre.
Most people are familiar with this 1944 drama and its semi-autobiographical story of the Wingfield family–the frustrated and henpecked son Tom (Clinton Brandhagen) stuck in a dead-end job at a shoe factory, his domineering mother Amanda (Deborah Hazlett), and his dreamy, painfully shy sister Laura (Sophie Hinderberger). In this memory play, Tom, a stand-in for the playwright, has long flown the coop for a restless life as a merchant marine and writer, and recollects the events leading up to him abandoning his family much the same way his own father did many years ago.
Shifting between the soft focus of memory and the harsh light of reality, poetic flights of fancy and ugly fights, The Glass Menagerie depicts the lives of people living on the unraveled edges of society.
The action centers on Amanda’s attempts to secure a future for Laura, who seems at first a lovely, retiring young woman with a disabling limp. Enrolling her in business school is a disaster, as anxiety over typing literally makes Laura ill. Amanda, a former Southern belle from the apparently Eden-like Blue Mountain who legendarily received 17 gentleman callers in one afternoon, decides that Laura needs gentleman callers of her own and strongarms Tom into producing one.
Tom obeys and the result of having co-worker Jim (Matthew Schleigh) over for dinner, throws the family’s dysfunctions and delusions into unforgiving relief. You see everyone, even Jim, for who they really are, not in the rosily romantic glow of self-delusion.
In most productions of Glass Menagerie, Tom is the impetus for change and the Gentleman Caller delivers the glancing blow of reality. Certainly, Mr. Schleigh memorably plays Jim as a hearty and can-do auger of the optimistic future, as seen in his exchanges with all three Wingfields. But here it is much more subtle–he is courtly and flirtatious with Amanda—who teeters on the verge of hysteria in her attempts at hospitality– and a sympathetic sounding board for Tom.
But for Laura he is, briefly, a miracle. For a breath-catching moment, he is the fulfillment of her crush and everything she dared to dream of. And even when he tells her the truth about his romantic situation, you see him not as an unfeeling boob but someone who truly wishes he could be two places at once–the hero of Laura and Amanda’s romantic reveries and the reliable fiancée to his steady girl.
It is this balance that gives the production such unexpected vivacity and pathos. Normally, you side with Tom and seethe right along with him—as magnetically portrayed by Mr. Brandhagen, he is a furious and poetic soul trapped in a factory job and tethered to a delusional magpie of a mother and an emotionally and physically crippled sister. You applaud his plunge for freedom and wonder why he didn’t flee sooner, like his father.
The Glass Menagerie
Closes October 6, 2013
315 West Fayette Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $38 – $60
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and tickets
Because the pull of this family’s sorrow is so strong that you know that even though Tom goes on to freely roam in the world, his heart still dwells in that downtrodden back alley apartment, firmly in the grasp of his mother’s faded glory and especially in the trembling fingers of his sister Laura–lost in a world where time is but a faint whisper as she abandons herself to the sight of her glass animals glowing in the candlelight. “Blow out the candles, Laura” Tom says softly, both a gentle plea and a cry to heaven. “Blow out the candles.”
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams . Directed by Vincent Lancisi . Featuring Clinton Brandhagen, Deborah Hazlett, Sophie Hinderberger and Matthew Schleigh . Scenic Design: Daniel Ettinger, Lighting Design: Jay Herzog, Costume Design: Julie Heneghan, Sound Design: Chas Marsh, Wig Design: Anne Nesmith, Props Master: Jillian Matthews, Dramaturg: Naomi Greenberg-Slovin, Stage Manager: Maribeth Chaprnka. Produced by Everyman Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.