A match struck in darkness on the “veranda” of a tenement fire escape to light a cigarette is the first illuminating ray in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, at Berkeley Rep, as Williams’ young “double,” would-be poet Tom Wingfield (Erik Lochtefeld) slowly drawls out, in Delta Faulknerian, the introduction to his nostalgic narration of a “memory play.”
“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician,” he says. “He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant guise of illusion.”
Williams’ first great play, penned in 1944, is set during “that quaint period, the thirties” in St. Louis. “In Spain there was revolution. Here there was only shouting and confusion.”
The Glass Menagerie is a quiet play, though, a lyrical excursion into a displaced Southern family living vicariously through dreams in otherwise straitened circumstances—and what happens when a long-expected, real-life Lochinvar appears suddenly out of the hazy sunset of those dreams.
The straitened circumstances aren’t just those of the Depression. Sister Laura (Emily Donohoe) is crippled—though mother Amanda (Rita Moreno) insists that word never be used—with a bad leg and overwhelming self-consciousness.
And the dreams aren’t equally distributed among the family trio: Tom dreams of escape, adventure—but goes to the movies; Laura plays her Victrola and tends to her “glass collection” of transparent animals; and Amanda fervently hopes for a future for her children, a gentleman caller for Laura, like the 17 she boasts of having received in one day in her girlhood, and struggles to keep the family together, sending Laura off mornings to a business college she’s long stopped attending, and archly cajoling and threatening Tom over his habits and his distractions.
It’s a little ironic that Ms. Moreno’s genuine star presence finds its vehicle in wannabe-belle Amanda, who first comes on too demure, almost mousy, then gradually digs in with her motherly nagging, her almost-antebellum nostalgic recitals, rising to all-out tirades that dissolve into pleading. Amanda is the first, the test-run, of Williams’ famous monstres sacrées.
Moreno carefully layers her character, punctuating the overly-artificial and nerve-wracking Southern poses and langeurs with sharp, quick gestures and movements, culminating in her shockingly funny apotheosis, “shaking her girlish ringlets” (as per the playwright’s stage direction) as she enters to greet Jim O’Connor (Terrance Riordan), the gentleman caller she’s dragooned Tom to invite to dinner from the shoe warehouse where both work. She is all dolled up in a “historic, almost” gown she just pulled out of the trunk. It is literally a museum piece, with one drooping flounce hanging from its otherwise perfect, rustling, mothballed finery.
The exact dress was Moreno’s call, but perfectly fits the direction in which Les Waters’ interpretation leads the play. Williams is too often presented in full “breast-beating” fashion, but on the Rep’s Thrust Stage Waters’ adroit cast brings out the comedy that’s mixed with pathos. A touch of it’s almost Chaplinesque, as when Tom, who jokes and clowns to slough off Amanda’s high-handed routines, flies into a rage on his way out to the movies and tangles himself in his coat, accidently throwing it off onto the glass menagerie, provoking hysterics from Laura.
It’s a clean, fresh reading of the text that dispenses with the usual half-baked emotional theatrics that luridly color too many productions of Williams’ best plays. But, in a way, it’s a little too clean and straight, like the set by Scott Bradley with its Strindbergian “second proscenium arch” dividing living and dining rooms, where Amanda often poses, all lit up, like memory, by a glow from beneath (Matt Frey’s lighting design).
It could use a little more shabbiness in the set of this quietly desperate family, just as the action needs a touch of the theatrical that goes beyond the usual emotionalizing, beyond even the excellent comedy.
At the crucial moment, when “the most realistic character in the play . . . an emissary from a world of reality we were somehow set apart from” enters this cabinet of grotesques (in Sherwood Anderson’s sense), Ms. Moreno takes Amanda to the far reaches of comedy. It is part of Williams’ dramaturgical dichotomy, like the Baudelairean poetry he, like Tom, tried to write: spleen and ideal, the nostalgia of memory and the humor of the present.
Director Waters’ realism here is in lower case; it has a light, sensitive touch. It may blossom into the strange blooms of Williams’, or Amanda, the jonquil girl’s, imagination as the show runs, so good is the casting.
Laura is all big eyes, downcast or gazing at life from a remote place, while conflicting thoughts animate her lips; Tom waiting for his life of adventure that proves to be another poem like the one written on a shoebox lid that gets him fired, taking him back, over and over, into what he’s left behind.
Jim O’Connor, professionally genial and savvy, clumsily spitting out gum because it’s lost its taste, and apologizing, delivers the final word on Amanda’s extravagant antics, so well played by Moreno: “I guess this is what they mean by southern hospitality.”
Photo By: Ken Friedman
Rita Moreno as Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.