Lakewood Playhouse captures multifaceted richnesss of ‘The Glass Menagerie’

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(L to R) Niclas Olson (Tom), Jessica Weaver (Laura) and Dayna Childs (Amanda) from the Lakewood Playhouse production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” Photo by Tim Johnston

Lakewood Playhouse continues its stellar 79th season with a well-crafted production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” Written in 1944, the largely autobiographical play was Williams’ first big hit as a playwright. The “memory play” is a psychological drama that examines the dynamics of an economically and emotionally hard-pressed family struggling to find meaning and make ends meet in depression-era St. Louis.

Directed by Micheal O’Hara, the play is Lakewood Playhouse’s first production of the classic. The story, presented as a series of memories of Tom Wingfield (Niclas Olson), takes place in the Wingfield’s claustrophobic apartment. Amanda (Dayna Childs), the single mother of two grown children – Tom and Laura (Jess Weaver) – is a verbal font of maternal badgering who is constantly trying to steer Tom into being more serious about his dreary, dead-end job and in finding a husband for Laura, who is handicapped socially as well as physically. Tom seeks escape through a combination of poetry, booze and movies, while Laura is lost in the tranquil beauty of her own inner world. Amanda, however, gets Tom to invite a work friend, Jim O’Connor (Nick Fitzgerald), to dinner. Jim does not know that he is there to meet Laura as a potential mate. Amanda seems to be using her children as pawns in a game to recapture the dignity and reputation that she lost when her husband abandoned the family when the children were young.

The four seasoned actors in the play make each of the characters fascinating to watch. Childs turns in a tour de force performance as Amanda, the one-time southern belle, who has since faded like a bouquet of jonquils. Her relationship with reality is somewhat shaky. Steeped in the past and unwilling to acknowledge hard truths – like the fact that her daughter is “crippled” – Amanda is the source of much of the spiritual illness that infects the family. She is a keeper of her own “glass menagerie” of memories of old boyfriends – endlessly recounting all the details of their lives (and deaths). She is bubbling over with things to say, but little of it is informed by present reality.

Olson is splendid as Tom, the snide, knowing, cynical young man (who is also a self-portrait of Williams himself). He is suave as the narrator and spirited during outbursts when he is cornered by his mother and is forced to blurt out hard truths (at which she takes much offense). Tom is always jotting things down (poetry presumably) in his pocket notebook and there is charm in the way he lovingly lingers near the typewriter, as if feeling its potential as a machine or even a ship that can take him on his own adventures. Tom is the most self-aware character in the story, yet he frequently indulges in escapism via frequent trips to the movie theater. He is aware that, out in the world, there is danger and turmoil – there is civil war in Spain and war is brewing in Asia and Europe. Tom, however is stuck in an apartment living on an economic razor’s edge – expected to support his helpless sister and constantly badgering mother.

Weaver, as Laura, turns in a moving performance as the shy, magical creature who seems content to have confined herself to the apartment where she can enjoy her collection of glass animals and an old record player. It is a world of pure sensation. Around other people, however, Laura can become upset to the point of sickness. Her mother’s insistence on forcing Laura into courtship causes extreme anxiety. Amanda, however, remains unwilling to see that her daughter is never going to be the graceful “belle of the ball” that she herself imagines herself to have been once upon a time.

Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Jim, the “gentleman caller,” is as fascinating as the others. Jim was the high school hero who has been brought down to earth by the reality of the Great Depression. When sent to console Laura, he ultimately becomes the proverbial bull in the china shop, upsetting a delicate edifice. His armchair psychology applied to Laura is naive and insulting. “You have an inferiority complex,” “don’t be self-conscious” and “be more confident” are all part of his advice to Laura. Jim regards himself as the type of popular guy that nevertheless has time to pay notice to those not up to his level. He is the one that is nice to the “crippled” girl, gives her a nickname and gives himself a pat on the shoulder for being a good person. In granting the favor of his kiss, Jim delivers a fatal blow.

In addition to the great acting, Aaron Mohs-Hale’s lighting design is especially effective in creating the spell that this play casts upon the audience. Themes of light and shadow are hugely symbolic in the play itself. (i.e. Tom leaves family in the dark by using money for the power bill to pay merchant marine dues. Laura gives a speech on beauty of her glass animals and how they take up the light and how the light shines through them. Knowledge is illumination and ignorance is darkness).

In addition, there are various types and degrees of lighting used for the stage. At times, things are brilliantly lit. At other times, the characters move through the dim of memories that, perhaps, wish they could be forgotten. Tom acts as a kind of Prospero figure, standing on high and using hand motions to summon illumination upon scenes conjured for the audience to witness.

It is easy to see why “The Glass Menagerie” is an American classic. You get bang for the buck on multiple levels. The many facets of this play will have you pondering it over and over, like Laura holding her glass creatures up to the light and turning them this way and that. With the play, Williams has transformed his own family life into a glass menagerie that the audience can take home and mull over whenever compelled to do so.

The overarching theme of the play is that divorce from truth has its consequences. Trying to force people into lives too much at odds with their own nature distorts them. Something has to give. Either they break (if they are as brittle as glass) or they flee.

“The Glass Menagerie” is not a Disney story with an ending where everybody wins. Nevertheless, it does its job. Amanda will no doubt be as much stuck in your head as she is in the heads of the characters in the play. The play serves as warning beacon. It gives its audience a means to step back and examine their own network of relationships. What sort of distortions have crept in? How much are your relationships and social ties based in reality? How many are healthy relationships? How many are propelled by habit, dependency and are gummed up with unrealistic expectations, illusions and unequal power dynamics?

I always approach the works of the American masters like Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller with a little apprehension, expecting them to come across as musty old relics. I am generally wrong in this manner of approach. Plays by the above-mentioned playwrights are enduring classics for a reason. They maintain a timeless relevancy; they continue to work their magic. Lakewood Playhouse has done another good one here.

“The Glass Menagerie” runs through March 11. For scheduling information and ticket prices visit lakewoodplayhouse.com or call (253) 588-0042.

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