“The Glass Menagerie” Shines Brightly at BST
“The Glass Menagerie” is one of the greatest American plays and, to my mind, even grows in stature with time. It is the semi-autobiographical account of the young Tennessee Williams and his need to assert himself and leave his family behind. It is a miraculous work of art that tells the heartbreaking story of a young man torn between familial duties and love and the biological necessity to follow his muse and destiny. In the writing and first production of this American classic, Tennessee Williams cemented his stature as a dramatist of the first order, and by doing so, he saved his mother and sister from poverty as they lived off the play’s royalties for the rest of their lives.
The play opens famously with Tom (Brett Mack) entering from an alley on the side of the set dressed in a Merchant Marine peacoat and stocking cap introducing the show as a memory play taking place in that “quaint time” of the Depression. He has escaped to a world of adventure and has come back to tell us about how and why he has escaped the stifling life as a warehouse worker living in a tenement apartment, working in a factory in St. Louis. Tennessee was born Thomas Lanier Williams III and worked with his father at the International Shoe Company in the city he nicknamed Saint Pollution.
Tom removes his jacket and hat and crosses into the family apartment dining room, only to be immediately nagged by his mother Amanda (Leigh Strimbeck) about his eating habits. “You must chew your food. Animals have secretions in their stomachs that enable them to digest their food without mastication, but human beings must chew their food before they swallow it down and chew, chew. Oh, eat leisurely. Eat leisurely.”
Tom rankles under the coaching, and the two appear to be prepared for an argument when Tom’s sister Laura (Sara Jayne Rothkopf) encourages her mother to talk about her girlhood memories when she was desired and valued as a woman with seventeen gentlemen callers. Tom writes poetry at the dining table, works at the factory, and escapes to the movies for adventure. Amanda sells magazine subscriptions by phone with a storyteller’s flair and makes plans and provisions for her sister, Laura, who is painfully shy and retreats into herself and her collection of glass figurines, which she likes to observe through the light. The quote “When you look at a piece of delicately spun glass, you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken” is projected on the set before the play begins.
Things come to a head when it is discovered that Laura has dropped out of business school and has been spending her winter days loitering in the park. Amanda and Tom feel their desperation rise up in each other, and Tom finally lashes out in a hilarious, sarcastic monologue filled with venom and wit. He is at his most creative when he is wounding, telling his mother, “Some night they’re going to blow us sky high. And will I be glad? Will I be happy? And so will you be. You’ll go up, up-over Blue Mountain on a broomstick! With seventeen gentlemen callers. You ugly babbling old witch!”
Brett Mack and Leigh Strimbeck ignite the evening in this confrontation. It has heat, humor and passion. Both actors have dived deep into the lines and made them their own with their terrific listening and their superb empathic and creative skills. It is some kind of alchemical magic that these actors can make this dialogue so fresh, alive and urgent 80 years after the play came out and after many viewings by this audience member. “There’s a reason it’s a classic,” director Steven Patterson said in the curtain speech.
As Tom mentions in the opening monologue, there is a fourth character who appears in the play. “Having a poet’s weakness for symbols, I am using this character as a symbol—as the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for.” He is the gentleman caller, Jim O’Connor, whom Amanda inveigles Tom to invite home from the warehouse as a dinner guest for Laura. He also happens to be someone Laura loved distantly in high school. Here, Tennessee creates a candlelit date for the fictional incarnation of his beloved sister, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had a prefrontal lobotomy in 1943. Here, she shares her memories of seeing Jim perform as the Pirate King three times, attendance as an act of love.
Sara Jayne Rothkopf and Russell Sperberg shine in this scene, Rothkopf retreating so far into herself, you felt like she would almost fold in on herself if she could. But Jim will reminisce, laugh and even dance with her. Sperberg gives the American businessman’s can-do spirit of unfounded cockeyed optimism the perfect pitch; he comes across as an appealing prince even when he crosses the line. Ther scene is taken at a stately pace which underscores the naturalism as the two near strangers find each other but it could use just a bit more tempo as it falls late in the show.
The set by Artistic and Managing Director John Sowle is beautiful. The dining room table is raised directly above the living area. There’s a fantastic fire escape and alley visible stage right which also reflects the dance hall’s lights. Best of all, the walls are made of a light scrim with a paisley pattern which can take light or can be seen through when lit from behind. Laura has a great bit when answering the door to admit the two men lets the door obscure herself completely which we would not see with the transparent walls. The fifth character in the play, the absent father, who was a telephone man who fell in love with long distance, is given pride of place in a portrait upstage center. I was not a fan of the projected quotes from the script used throughout the play. I felt like the play did not need this commentary.
Steven Patterson has done a masterful job with this script and this cast. The production is packed with laughter and can not help but move you as you watch this portrait of the artist as a young man and the horrible joy it took for him to become who he was. It is a great production of one of the greatest plays by perhaps America’s greatest playwright. This is essential viewing for theater lovers up and down the Hudson Valley.
“The Glass Menagerie” runs through 10/15 at Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, NY. Tickets: www.bridgest.org