Possibly the most lyrical and sentimentally poignant of all the plays written by Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie still holds up as one of Williams’ most well-written plays. “delicately-wrought” is the adjective that come to mind when trying to describe this “tone poem” of a play. Frequently performed and revived as a staple of the American Theatre repertory/canon, the current production now playing at Washington, DC’s historic and venerable Ford’s Theatre feels like nothing less than a totally new reincarnation of this beloved play.
Under the sensitive and probing Direction of Mark Ramont, this production shines with an unerring transparency that lifts the veil off the usual platitudes. Director Ramont tries for a more relevant, incisively psychological approach that helps to underline the meaning of the text with just the right undergirding of memory, mood and melancholy. The thwarted desires and longings of the Wingfield family as they try valiantly to live in the present while the past encroaches upon their lives is vividly etched. The accent here is on expanding on this wistful memory piece with the addition of some very bold directorial approaches.
Ramont encases and frames the play with a projected backdrop (almost “diorama-like”) of scratched photographic footage of all the characters in the play (Kudos to Projection Designer Clint Allen) —this visual approach single-handedly merges the theme of “Retreat from Reality” and narrator Tom’s (Tom Story) escape into the word of the movies. This theme of retreat into the world of illusion is further enhanced with the contrast so vividly imposed on the audience by the stark reality of Scenic Designer Timothy R. Mackabee’s creation of a network of three –story fire escapes as the harsh backdrop for the Wingfield Family’s St. Louis Apartment.
Anxieties about the future come crushing to the fore and illusions are shattered (yes, folks, we are in Tennessee Williams country!) throughout this moving play. This early play of the Williams’ canon is so utterly tantalizing in its hints of the themes that would become so much darker in the later plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This particular play does indeed face stark realities but Director Ramont and company leaven the approach with a relaxed style of acting with pronounced and effective undertones. It was a pleasure to see this play performed by such superior actors who knew how to interpret the “ever-changing” moods of Williams’ characters.
As Amanda, the esteemed film (The Bostonians, Slaves of New York, etc.), television (Mr. Selfridge) and stage (The Crucible, The Master Builder) actress Madeleine Potter plays the role of the domineering mother with such a spontaneity and natural command of the stage. As Potter admonishes her son to masticate while chewing, entreats her daughter to “step out” and rejoin the world and —especially—in her soliloquies and monologues, Potter is nothing less than enthralling. I could not take my eyes off of her; she totally inhabits her role without any easy capitulations to the extremes of the scabrous nagging Mother or the loquacious Southern Belle (that I have witnessed in so many past performances of this role). Potter, rather, takes these extreme elements and melds them into a portrait of a very real person concerned about her family’s future, striving to create a better life for all. I am too young to have seen Laurette Taylor in this role but I wonder if this performance is similar in greatness —every movement seems natural and unstudied. Potter’s performance is a master class in the art of acting. Her monologue as she retreats into a reverie on the memories of picking jonquils is a shimmering delight. Potter’s mastery of every nuance of emotion in the scene where she hosts the dinner in honor of Laura’s (Jenna Sokolowski) gentleman-caller (Thomas Keegan) is entrancing—a decided hallmark of her acting is that she employs subtle comedic flourishes throughout the most dramatic moments of the play.
I have never seen a production of this play where the comic moments were intertwined so beautifully and organically. As the frustrated dreamer of a son (who has a challenging relationship with his Mother), Tom Wingfield (who also functions as the Narrator of these intimate proceedings and is obviously modeled on Tennessee Williams), actor Tom Story employs a very natural and comedic flair in all of his acting. Particularly enaging is the scene where he pours out his crushed dreams and his fervent hopes to his sister. I have no way of knowing if this is the result of the bold choices of the Director, but the homoerotic aspects of the character are incorporated here as they quite rightly should be. Story plays with a very subtly fey manner —his body movements are languid, limp and raucously carefree, and he injects sly humor into many of his readings. Story’s scene where he gets fed up with his Mother’s cajoling and, consequently, starts yelling that he frequents opium dens and brothels is a gem. Such is this fine actor’s strong sense of the character that there is no doubt as to his nocturnal activities when he “goes to the movies” night after night —-this is as it should be and I am sure Tennessee Williams would approve of the directness of this interpretation.
As the Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor, actor Thomas Keegan plays his part with audacious confidence. Unlike other interpretations of this role, Keegan provocatively plays the role of the “up-and –coming go-getter” with a cockiness and assurance that works very well indeed. There is no sense of awkwardness at all when talking to the shy Laura. A strong physicality and vigor is brought to the role by Mr. Keegan.
As the timid and shy Laura, Jenna Sokolowski delivers an interesting portrayal of what is often a stereotypical role. Ms. Sokolowski actually enlivens her acting with quiet, intuitive emotional shading —especially as she inhabits her role in the Second Act. As interpreted by Sokolowski (and as Directed by Ramont) the moment when Jim entices Laura into a brief dance around the living room becomes an iridescent epiphany of exultant joy. Stars are emblazoned on the sky above, by Lighting Designer Dan Covey, and the faces of Keegan and Sokolowski are lit-up with abandon and an almost sensual abandon. This scene is a phenomenal knockout –I have never seen this scene played in such an open and embracing manner. Yet another bold choice for this play!
Throughout the play, I was enthralled by the burnished golden brown, burnished, amber hues of Covey’s superior Lighting. Costume Design by Frank Labovitz is appropriate for the period, slightly careworn but stylized and crisp when necessary. Sound Design and original music by John Gromada is effective throughout—especially with the heart- tugging sound of trains rattling in the distance and the exciting sounds of the Dance Hall nearby. Dialects and Voice Director Leigh Wilson Smiley must be commended for all of the Southern accents are superb.
Kudos to Director Mark Ramont for taking this early play of Mr. Williams and expanding its enormous appeal with bold and innovative acting, direction, as well as adding fascinating technical and scenic components that add to the power of this lovely play.
Congratulations are also due to the venerable Ford’s Theatre’s Director, Paul R. Tetreault, for presenting this wonderful play with such unabashed immediacy and honesty.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Magic Time! ‘The Glass Menagerie’ at Ford’s Theatre by John Stoltenberg.