A FRAGILE PRODUCTION STILL RESONATES
Stepping from the bustling, sunny streets of Lincoln Park into Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre feels like traveling back almost a century into the sepia-toned vision of disillusionment and despair that marked the Depression era. The dark, claustrophobic space is perfectly suited for The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams’ portrait of a family at last disabused of the great broken promise, the American dream. The play takes us back to a time when economic sacrifices became unbearable, boiling into anger and upheaval both in the streets and in the dim confines of the Wingfield family’s crumbling St. Louis apartment. Director Laley Lippard uses The Glass Menagerie to channel the frustrating uncertainty of our own time, making this uneven production ultimately hit home.
Of course, what makes or breaks The Glass Menagerie is the little glass-like figure herself: Laura, the young girl with a slight limp and crippling low self-confidence. Leah Karpel plays her beautifully, bringing to the role a certain pure tenderness and innocent fascination with all of the world around her. It is Karpel’s subtle delicacy that makes this production so painfully nostalgic; she is the real driving force behind the power of this play.
That is not to undermine the strength of Kathy Scambiaterra as Amanda, Laura’s evanesced, Southern Belle mother, who plans to secure Laura’s future by seeking out gentleman callers for her. Scambiaterra finds the truly genuine side of Amanda, the one in which we see that her pushiness is out of love, and that her defects seem as inevitable consequences of a life filled with disappointments. Brett Schneider is haughty but sincere as the Gentleman Caller Jim, the character who is the harbinger of the dose of reality that will shatter any illusions, any sense of escape, that the Wingfield family had created to survive.
Aaron Roman Weiner is a bit disappointing as Tom Wingfield, Amanda’s son who would rather be a poet but is forced to support the family by working in a factory. He seems to be an upset to the chemistry of this cast; he is a bit monotonous, and doesn’t feel as natural in the space as the others. Instead of a dreamer, Tom seems to be a deadbeat, making him significantly less sympathetic than the other characters, and pointedly affecting the intended balance of the play.
Lippard seems to be going for a candid, fly-on-the-wall direction style, which is very effective in the already heightened dramatic scenes, but makes the conflict of other scenes feel a little forced, as if they arise from nowhere. Furthermore, Menagerie should have a constant, palpable tension. Even in the most quiet, sentimental of moments, as when Tom and Amanda watch a sliver of a moon rise over the cityscape, there should be an utter uncertainty that taints every precious moment. Lippard doesn’t quite conjure this anxiety until the last scene between Laura and the Gentleman Caller, but when the director hits, she hits hard: this quiet, candlelit scene is taut, with an undertow of raw, straining emotion as we wait, finally, for an eruption.
For me, Menagerie is always worth seeing, and Steppenwolf’s production proves to us that it is indeed relevant in our time of global economic crisis and immense sacrifice. While elements of this production are mediocre, we are still left with the devastating memory of Laura meticulously polishing her little glass figurines, as delicate as she is, protecting them from the world that will inevitably leave them – and her – broken.
The Glass Menagerie is a Steppenwolf Next Up production, which is presented in collaboration with Northwestern University’s MFA programs in Direction and Design, and features the work of graduates of those programs with casts of professional Chicago actors.
The Glass Menagerie
Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago
scheduled to end on June 24, 2012
for tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit http://www.steppenwolf.org
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com