SOME FRAGILE PERFORMANCES CAN’T BREAK MENAGERIE’S SPELL
The Glass Menagerie is getting lots of airtime this summer. Having just been produced in the Steppenwolf Garage, Redtwist Theatre now takes a shot at Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical memory play. Given the current economic climate, it’s not surprising that theatres are tempted to revisit it. The play gives a hard, highly personal examination of an economically-challenged time not unlike our own. A St. Louis family—matriarch Amanda Wingfield and her children Laura and Tom—are forced to make immense sacrifices to stay afloat financially after the head of the household abandons them. Menagerie is such a strong play that I’d suggest seeing even a lesser production, but Redtwist’s intimate space, capable direction, and beautiful set, accompanied by Jacqueline Grandt’s strong, desperate performance as Amanda, make this production devastating. Even with some less successful performances, the play’s overwhelming power speaks for itself.
What is most important about Menagerie is that we feel the strain of the times constantly pulling at the protagonists. In the midst of the Great Depression, Amanda Wingfield, a Southern Belle far past her prime, is forced to be the head of her family. As she tries everything to secure a future for her children, every one of her plans and provisions collapse. But it’s not just tragic on a personal level—Amanda is also archetypal: Throughout the country, there are families crumbling under the pressure of the times. Josh Altman’s direction highlights this reality by ensuring that each of the characters’ tragedy is relatable, reminding us that the Wingfields are not the only struggling family.
I often believe that a good production of Menagerie hinges not on Amanda but her daughter Laura, a glass-figurine of a girl whose future is dismantled before our eyes. Sarah Mayhan’s performance is good without being great; she is mildly socially awkward, but it doesn’t seem enough to justify the commotion that Amanda and brother Tom make over her. Amanda’s plan to marry her off isn’t unfeasible, as she is remarkably beautiful and not as odd as I’ve seen her played in the past.
This production hinges instead on Ms. Grandt’s masterful portrayal of Amanda. Grandt never retreats into comedy as is so easy with a character as seemingly disjointed as Amanda. When Amanda finally sells a magazine subscription, her line “You’re just a Christian martyr” is often played for laughs; Grandt makes it a profoundly unsettling display of extreme anxiety; her performance shines well above the many portrayals I have seen before.
Ryan Heindl offers a decent performance as Amanda’s son Tom, who also serves as the poetical narrator. Heindl has a highly-potent chemistry with the women, but he comes off whinier than he should, crossing from the dramatic into the absurdly melodramatic too often. Also, Williams’ fascination with the beauty of words should come across within this character; Tom falls in love with language as he speaks it, and no phrase should be wasted. We don’t sense that from Heindl.
Chris Daley’s gentleman caller was a disappointment. His performance played up the character’s arrogance a little too well, which would have been a fine choice had Daley not sacrificed the genuine elements of the character. Instead of hoping for a possibility for Laura, I just thought, “This guy is an asshole. She can do better.”
Redtwist lives up to their name and puts their characteristic “red twist” on this show (their pun, not mine) with Henry Behel’s set design: the Wingfield apartment is wrapped by the iconic fire escape from which Tom narrates the play, but the fire escape’s long metal rods stretch all the way to the back of the set, where they twist upward into a barb. Behind that, there is about 15 feet of black, empty space, framing an oversized portrait of Mr. Wingfield, the notably absent patriarch (lighting designer Heather Gilbert highlights this portrait whenever it is thematically appropriate). Behel’s work—the highlight of this production—is extremely interesting and inventive, resulting in an utterly stunning and stark visual for the entire piece.
photos by Jan Ellen Graves
The Glass Menagerie
Redtwist Theatre in Chicago
scheduled to end on September 2, 2012 EXTENDED to September 16, 2012
for tickets, call 773-728-7529 or visit http://www.redtwist.org
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