By ANNE SIEGEL
Broadway isn’t the only place currently producing Williams’ early play, The Glass Menagerie. The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre just opened an excellent production in the largest of its three theaters, the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. The theater got part of its name – Powerhouse – from the fact that the complex resides in a century-old building that formerly provided electric power to Milwaukee, particularly appropriate when one considers the power of this production’s performances.
In discussing his history with directing The Glass Menagerie, Milwaukee Repertory Theater Artistic Director Mark Clements recalls his first production many years ago, when he was much younger. In that version, Clements said he identified the most with Tom, the young man trying to create his own artistic voice and, at the same time, see the world. Now, as the father to a young child, Clements says he can empathize more with Amanda, who tries to protect her children from the world. The British-born Clements has been the Rep’s artistic director for the past seven years.
This shift in perspective (identifying with the mother instead of the son) is evident in the Milwaukee Rep version. However, the character of the mother, Amanda, still plays out her fantasies to the irritation of the play’s main character and narrator, her son, Tom. Amanda (played wonderfully by Chicago actor Hollis Resnick) still continues to descend in the emotional spiral that no doubt caused her husband to run off many years ago. Even now, she is unable to stop the constant pestering of Tom.
The Glass Menagerie, the most autobiographical of all Tennessee Williams’ plays, is set in St. Louis in the 1940s. The play was a hit when it opened on Broadway in 1945, winning the New York Drama Critics Circle Award that year. It set the course for Williams to earn enough financial backing to fund the future plays for which he is also well known (including A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof).
The Milwaukee production’s opening scene is the bleakest this reviewer can recall. Tom (a tall and appropriately skinny Ryan Imhoff) speaks the introductory monologue in a monotone. He visually indicates the play’s memory theme by seeming to grasp a handful of the somber background music and stuff it into his pocket. It stops the music – at least for a while.
In a clever theatrical device, the “narrator” Tom appears in a wool cap and pea coat (which he undoubtedly will wear in later life). When Imhoff turns into the “character” of Tom, the cap and coat come off. Imhoff, as Tom, physically indicates the poverty in which his family lives. He doesn’t long for food as much as he does the movies, where he goes almost every night to escape. Still, Tom is stalwart in his role as the family breadwinner. He labors daily in the warehouse of a shoe factory; his wages barely sustain the family. This stultifying environment is only broken by periodic breaks, in which Tom dashes off to write poetry. Tom became the family’s provider after his father, the man who famously “fell in love with long distance,” suddenly disappeared,
In Milwaukee’s set design, an 8 x 10” portrait of the father is always present and sits prominently on a small table. A much larger projection of the same photo hangs over the apartment where his family lives. Although the father (who is never seen) may have left his family, his wife never leaves behind her (mostly bitter) memories about him.
But her daydreams can be charming, too. In one scene, Amanda wistfully recalls her younger days and all the suitors who traveled to her home. As she does, actor Hollis Resnik seems to miraculously soften her face into that of a much younger woman. Amanda talks about gathering both jonquils and beaus, warming to each memory. The audience can only speculate about how truthful these imaginings are. But we do know that this story is often told to Amanda’s grown children, which also includes her daughter Laura.
Laura (Kelsey Brennan) is quiet and shy. She walks with a slight limp, as Williams intended (in his production notes). When her mother insists that she greet Tom and his guest at the door, Laura basically has a panic attack.
In Brennan’s skilled hands, this scene is almost too painful to watch.
Both Tom and Laura probably guessed long ago that Amanda’s constant fussing undoubtedly drove her husband away. Ironically, had she been a more easygoing wife, she probably would have had the comfortable life for which she longed.
But Williams sees people as they are, which means they are very slow to change (if they change at all). Even when Tom occasionally reminds his mother that it’s his paycheck that keeps them from being tossed out on the street, Amanda is silent for only a moment.
In this production, the Williams’ apartment is exceptionally sparse, as created by set designer Philip Whitcomb. Every bit of it looks scruffy and worn. There isn’t even a small, lighted display case for Laura’s collection of glass animals (giving the play its title). Instead, the collection sits on a wood tray that is stored on the floor beneath a bench.
The set’s most striking element is a full-sized enclosure of smoked glass or acrylic. One door serves as an entrance to the apartment as well as the fire escape, which serves as a balcony. The other door leads to the dining room. The family sometimes congregates behind the glass wall to eat. This forces the audience to peer through this slightly wavy glass to see the characters.
The glass walls also suggest the impermanence of memory and, perhaps, Amanda’s heightened fear that the glass will come toppling down on her at any moment.
The play’s best scenes are always near the end, when the character dubbed “The Gentleman Caller” arrives. In preparation for his appearance, Amanda buys a stunningly beautiful 1940s dress for Laura. Not to be outdone, Amanda goes through her wardrobe to find a faded, tiered gown that is still slightly fancy while also looking somewhat ridiculous. Lighting by Thomas C. Hase illuminates Amanda’s pale dress in a way that one cannot tell if it originally was yellow or pink. The dress’ blue sash is the only part with a distinct color. This costume, as well as Laura’s party dress and the other outfits, are exceptional (thanks to costume designer Rachel Laritz).
Laura’s almost ghostly character comes to life when The Gentleman Caller (nicely portrayed by Brandon Dahlquist) decides to bring her out of her shell. He remembers that they went to high school together. Seeing the pained look on Laura’s face, Jim reassures her that her slight limp and a leg brace were hardly noticeable to anyone else. At first an egotistical braggart, Brennen (as Jim) shows some genuine affection for the slow-blooming Laura. There’s genuine chemistry between them.
Sadly, the women’s dreams are crushed (thinking Jim might be a regular suitor for Laura) when he announces his engagement to another girl. After he departs, Amanda launches into a string of unjustified attacks on Tom. This proves to be the last straw. For the last time, Tom tugs on his wool cap and begins to talk about other chapters in his life. He finally admits that no matter how far away from St. Louis he could physically get, the family he left behind is never completely forgotten.
Anne Siegel has been a theater critic for more than 30 years. She lives in Milwaukee and is the Membership Services chair for the American Theatre Critics Association.