The Glass Menagerie

NC Stage scores with Williams play

Bruce C. Steele
Asheville Citizen-Times
Jun. 8, 2011  

Narrator Tom Wingfield, speaking directly to the audience, introduces “The Glass Menagerie” as a “memory play.” The current N.C. Stage-Immediate Theatre co-production of the Tennessee Williams classic takes him at his word.

Further, even. The show, running through June 19, is staged as a dream from which Tom cannot awaken. The living-dining room and porch of his mother's house have become a spare white space with all-white furniture and props, white books and newspapers with blank pages, white dinner plates filled with invisible food.

It's as if the home of Tom's youth is just one step away from flickering out completely.

The characters who live there, however, remain vibrant and alive in Tom's recollection — or nightmare. They are still the intense, wounded family he loved and left behind, their full-color costumes indicating their vibrancy even in his memory.

Amanda, Tom's mother, is one of the great overbearing, failed matriarchs of American theater. She is the belle of the ball who fell in love with a charismatic charlatan and lost everything except her grand sense of herself.

All she has left are her two troubled children: Tom, an angry, frustrated poet who works at a warehouse, and Laura, who calls herself “crippled” and finds refuge in her phonograph and fragile glass animal collection. Amanda is determined to find Laura a “gentleman caller” and the true romance that eluded her mother.

Callan White gloriously inhabits Amanda, a role once embodied by Joanne Woodward and Katharine Hepburn. She gives a bravura performance, even more so because she yields the stage gracefully to other cast members in Act II, when she's no longer the central figure.

Indeed, the long second-act conversation between Laura (Alaska Reece Vance), and her hapless caller (Andrew Hampton Livingston) is the most emotionally wrenching scene in this superior production. It's played by candlelight, making it even more dreamlike.

Livingston, last seen at N.C. Stage as Joe Pitt in “Angels in America,” is again spot-on as a poignantly unrealized young man who wants to do good yet hasn't the moral strength. In contrast, Vance, who resembles a younger Frances McDormand, is a tad too strong and earthy for frail, ethereal Laura, but she plays that Act II encounter so well that she seems for a while to melt into the role.

Standing largely outside is Tom, played by Willie Repoley, who was so amazing as Prior Walter in “Angels.” Here he's been directed to be a degree less natural, more mannered, even louder than Tom's memory characters, as if he knows he's merely acting out a reality that's both beyond him and yet inescapable.

Director Hans Meyer's vision is clear to the end and perfectly unites Williams' grand melodrama with the intimate space at N.C. Stage. That striking set is by Jessica Tandy Kammerud, with focused, expressive lighting by Rus Snelling and 1930s costumes by Deborah R. Austin. Meyer did his own sound design, which often furthers the dreamlike atmosphere.

Knowing that Tom carries with him much of the playwright's own baggage, both the play and this haunting production make you wonder whether Williams ever got any peaceful sleep in his life.