17 March 2010

The Glass Menagerie: A Must-See!

It was my happy privilege to be invited to attend the opening night performance of Mortal Fools Theatre Project’s The Glass Menagerie. This was my second experience with these Mortals, who are anything but foolish. Their (pardon the pun) killer production of Frankenstein last October drew at least one hearty Halloween scream from me as I piped up with the little girls on the front row—this from the member of the audience perhaps least disposed to shouting in public. And it felt good. 
So. The Mortals have done it again—they’ve delighted me. Only this time I wasn’t gripped by fear as I watched them do their thing—oh, no. With The Glass Menagerie they presented relationship dynamics as familiar to me as, well, my next of kin. It’s true, I may have groaned here and there, but only in empathy. Only in love and frustration and solidarity. I laughed too, for the same reasons.
It’s an interesting thing to see a play I’ve loved for more than half my life (and if you don’t know how many years that represents, good for me). It’s an interesting thing to have read this Tennessee Williams’ classic, one of my favorites, and learned it so well I could even now almost say the lines right along with the characters. I’ve seen this drama repeatedly played out on the stage of my own imagination. I’ve watched the screen version, starring Katharine Hepburn (if you haven’t, you should). It’s been a few years since my last encounter with the Wingfields and their Gentleman Caller. Maybe it was because I collected a smidgen or two of understanding during that time, or maybe it was simply the gift of seeing old friends portrayed by new ones, but this go-round with the Menagerie yielded me some new insights. It should have been obvious to me before, but finally I see it clearly: I lived this play! Or significant parts of it anyhow. And I have witnessed family members living it too. 
Now, before you get all scaredy that I’m going to reveal too much information and veer off into reviewing my life instead of this play, relax. I’ll go no farther than to say that I could kiss these Mortals, truly, for bringing me something new and sweet (though at times quite bitterly so) and showing me something important about my own history. I went to this inspired production, which was skillfully directed by the talented David Morgan, expecting to enjoy it but expecting also to know it. That’ll teach me to take a Fool for granted. There’s always something fresh to learn from a story, no matter how often you’ve heard it. There’s always the chance that some mystery of memory will be at last liberated. Perhaps that’s one reason the Amanda Wingfields of our lives rehearse the same words in our ears again and again: to give us chance after chance to get it. If that’s not a conscious motive, nevertheless it’s an effective one. Or can be.
The Provo Theater is a fitting venue for this production. The stage and seating there are intimate—that is to say, small. The limited space proves no obstacle for David Morgan but rather is an asset, underscoring the close atmosphere and giving the audience the feeling they are near enough to knock over Laura Wingfield’s precious miniatures with no more than a breath. The entire play takes place in a single room with its adjoining fire escape and landing. There are never rearrangements of the set, only once the addition of a few fancies—doilies, a candelabra, a floor lamp—intended to catch a man, or a fantasy. Nat Reed’s inventive set design, with its sloping floor, artfully conveys the emotional imbalance of the family and deftly aims all attention toward the symbol of Laura’s fragile inner life: her glass figurine collection. Spider web-construction walls (which also resemble broken glass) provide a visual representation of the Wingfields’ collective entrapment by the hard realities they each seek in vain to escape. 
I give the Mortal Fools good marks for engaging musical choices (Amy Cloud), imaginative lighting (Josh Gubler), some effective costuming (Landen Gates), and blocking. I applaud the casting; these actors are fluent in the emotional language of Williams and play their roles true to his spirit. The four actors work well together and each delivers a strong performance—certainly no single person carries this show. That said, Karen Baird as Amanda is brilliant. Perhaps it’s because she brings to life the spiritual twin of my late grandmother, another high-octane Dixie belle whose hope sprang eternal in gentlemen callers, but I find her delightful, even in her dogged delusions and mad mothering. I appreciate the underlying sweetness Baird brought to her role; I never liked Mrs. Wingfield before as well as I do in this performance. Her moments at center stage, delivering reminiscent monologues with dancing eyes cast heavenward, are terrific. Another inspiration was the choice to cast Stephanie Breinholt Foster as Laura. Stephanie has real presence; she is never diminutive or vanishing, though her character would wish to become invisible. Thank you, David Morgan, for not taking the easy way out and choosing a mere slip of a girl to play the part. Maybe no slips showed up for audition. Lucky us. Stephanie gives “Blue Roses” substance and possibility, though we know it will never be realized. Her romantic scene with the Gentleman Caller, played by Daryl Ball, is one of the best in the production, and well-played by both; their energy together is excellent. Reese Phillip Purser does some good work as narrator who, attempting detachment, wanders among us as he tells his tale, and again as the tortured character who comprehends his trap but never achieves more than the pretense of actual escape. 
The only real criticisms I have are small indeed, and certainly nothing that should prevent you from buying tickets right away. They are mere distractions, and do bear in mind that this reviewer is generally of the distracted persuasion anyhow: the southern accents (for which I have an ear, having been raised on a Rural Route in the Bible Belt) aren’t quite . . . there yet, at least they don’t feel strong, and I missed the deliciousness of a good drawl. Granted, it’s tough to acquire a genuine Southern accent when you aren’t raised with one (and tough to lose it when you are). Costuming, as I mentioned before, is overall good, however, my date and I may have had some nits to pick with Amanda’s resurrected party dress (a little too homely?) and with the Gentleman Caller’s suit (a little too modern?). These are, perhaps, details which would undoubtedly be helped by generous patronage and by more people buying tickets to shows and providing the costumers with more resources to work with; after all, y’all, vintage suits ain’t cheap. 
The last two items get their own paragraph because of their almost hypnotic power of distraction: during the one slight scene change I mentioned earlier, the stage manager who set out the celebratory doiles and tablecloth, etc., did so in a way that did not agree with the character of Amanda Wingfield; believe me, because I lived with her, she would not have left those frills askew, especially if there was a man on the line. That one tiny detail bothered me so much that I could barely suppress the urge to slip up onto the darkened stage and straighten the fancies, just so Amanda wouldn’t lose her mind. Finally, there were a couple times when there were side conversations happening, just natural “business” of the play, which took away too much attention from the main scripted dialogue. The stage is too close and too small to support that kind of ad libbing. I would suggest that in future the characters mouth or at least whisper those lines instead of actually speaking them aloud, however quietly.
If you haven’t already made plans to see Mortal Fools Theatre Project’s practically perfect production of The Glass Menagerie, then you must hurry. This show plays at 7:30 p.m. Mon/Thu/Fri/Sat through March 27th. If I have anything to do with it, this run will soon be sold out to delighted and enlightened audiences. The best theater in town is happening this month at the corner of 100 East and 100 North! Congratulations to David Morgan, Mark Bell, and the rest of the staff and cast on a beautiful production, and thanks for giving me such wonderful hope for the future of Provo theater. And thanks too for the free tickets!


lara said...

Thanks for the review! I love that tiny theatre and hope to see this show.

Johanna said...

Great review, Geo. Makes me wish I were there to see it. Or at least, makes me want to read it again here.

Geo said...

Come down from your Pokey palace, Joh, and I'll see it again with you!