“The Glass Menagerie” Shines in a New Light at Brouwer House
NorthEast Theatre Ensemble continues with its invaluable project of reviving modern classics by placing them in Capital Region historic sites and encouraging the setting and the text to spark new connections while introducing intrepid playgoers to some pretty fabulous buildings. In the tradition of their “Streetcar Named Desire” at Albany Distilling Company, “An Ideal Husband” and “Little Foxes” at Ten Broeck Mansion and my favorite “The Seagull” at Mabee Farm, they are producing “The Glass Menagerie” with many of “The Seagull”’s cast at The Brouwer House, Schenectady’s oldest home, a 1730’s colonial in the Stockade.
“The Glass Menagerie” is Tennessee William’s breakout 1944 classic semi-autobiographical play which tells the story of the Wingfield family of St. Louis, Missouri. The young poet currently supporting the family is Tom (Michael Sinkora) who introduces the play and dramatis personae. His single mother Amanda (Janet Hurley Kimlicko) is a fading belle of the genteel south acclimating to the hard truths of the urban North with her painfully shy and retiring daughter Laura (Shae Fitzgerald) after the man of the house has deserted them, the “telephone man who fell in love with long distances.”
The action of the play is Amanda’s struggle for survival and security for her daughter. When Laura drops out of secretarial school, Amanda decides that she must have a gentleman caller and that Tom will provide one from the shoe warehouse where he works, which he does. The arrival of Jim (Jordan Bray) and the dinner intended to set the two young people up is the second act.
William’s themes are the responsibility of the artist to his work, his family and to society. He asks how can an artist grow and thrive while not unnecessarily harming those he loves. Williams’ sister Rose had a pre-frontal lobotomy in 1943 while he was beginning his career and was institutionalized for the rest of her life which wracked him with guilt. The play also offers Williams the chance to give his sister what she never had in life, a romantic date with soft music, twinkling lights, a dance, and a kiss. Ironically, in writing of the rapacious artist who must flee to fulfill himself, Williams created a smash hit that has been revived on Broadway 7 times and whose royalties provided his mother with a comfortable life.
The NorthEast Theatre production is nimbly directed by Sandra M. Boynton, there have been many adjustments and improvisations necessitated by setting the play in the large front room of the Colonial house. As soon as you enter the front door, you are in the playing space and Andrew Vroman, the Assistant Stage Manager will check you in by the settee used as Tom’s bed and the couch for the date scene. There are 30 hardwood folding chairs lining the perimeter of the room for the audience. Assistant Director is Suzanna Bornn and the Stage Manager is Ren Kris. Travis Fealy has created a magical menagerie as props master and the exquisite costumes are by Bonnie Fitzgerald, if anything, they are too nice for this family who will soon have their power cut off.
Sinkora as Tom enters the front door and hangs his coat up in the hall before addressing the audience with “I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve…” Sinkora who I’ve seen play the part before in a production directed by Boynton at Siena college has taken his second shot at the role and mined it rather successfully for its comedic aspects. He has a winking, intimate repartee with Kimlicko, an inside joke shared with Fitzgerald while their mother recalls her 19 gentleman callers and an explosive “El Diablo” speech, expressively painting his imaginary life with bold gestures and speech. There was some ambiguity about his reasons for his frequent visits to the movies, otherwise, his sexuality went unexplored.
Janet Hurley Kimlicko who plays all the leads for NorthEast Theatre Ensemble brings a coquettish gleam and rallying energy to Amanda that works well when she is scheming with Tom or selling subscriptions by phone. She also has great flirtatiousness welcoming Jim into the house and you can strongly see the line from Blanche Dubois, which Janet played so successfully last summer in “Streetcar,” to Amanda. I missed stronger notes of dominance in her Amanda. She was more of a meddler than the Prussian general Williams described his mother as.
Arriving in the second act, Jordan Bray’s Jim does a great job blowing in with a fresh air of Dale Carnegie’s confidence and can-do optimism. He has a lovely scene with Shae Fitzgerald’s Laura and the two could almost make you dream of a happy ending. Almost.
I feel Shae Fitzgerald’s Laura is the most successful performance of the evening and conveys all of the beauty and horror of the playwright’s imaginings. Her easy, comfortable rapport with her brother and terrific dissembling when her mother discovers her lies about school. Kimlicko is terrific in this confrontation hovering over the typewriter to see her progress. Her commitment and devotion to her glass collection was funny, pathetic and all too identifiable for those of us committed to theater in the Capital Region with our obsessive care for precious little things. There was a sublime moment when Laura was left alone with Jim and Fitzgerald’s trapped eyes darted about the room looking for escape only to be stared back at by the audience which for me made the experiment of the staging worthwhile.
The Brouwer House is not a natural fit for the pre-war tenement of St. Pollution as Williams called his hometown. There are problems with the hall standing in for the fire escape, the placement of the menagerie and the closeness of the quarters tamps down the theatricality of Williams language. While there were terrific discoveries to be made by the close conversation and the light improv between scenes assisting the dove-tailing one into another, too much of the play lost its size and impact. When it was played out as in Tom’s telling off his mother or Jim’s stumble while dancing, it could feel dangerous.
NorthEast Theatre Ensemble has very quickly become a sparkling jewel in the Capital Region theater mosaic and they have developed a devoted following that they have rewarded with these unique theater experiences. I heartily recommend you grabbing any of the tickets that are left for this intimate, absorbing take on one of the greatest plays in the American canon. This play done by this company in the Stockade speaks with great eloquence to our need to find a place and means to create freely.