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'The Glass Menagerie' Brings Classic Drama to Life

Masterworks Theater makes Tennessee Williams accessible to modern audiences.

Photo by Russ Rowland

The Masterworks Theater Company is on a mission: to put on the great classic plays and musicals that every young person throughout high school and college should have the opportunity to see, and then make them accessible to those students to ignite a love of theater in a new generation. It's an admirable goal, and though this Tennessee Williams text is a lengthy piece with only four characters and a single set, the new production gives The Glass Menagerie a life and energy that certainly succeeds in its mission.

The set-up of this classic American play is simple. The Wingfield family, consisting of former Southern belle Amanda and her two adult children, Tom and Laura, live a meager existence in an apartment in St. Louis after being abandoned by their father, a working class telephone man. Upon realizing that deathly shy Laura has dropped out of school to avoid the terror of going to class, Amanda becomes fixated on the only other way to provide a better life for her daughter--finding her a gentleman caller, who can eventually become a husband.

But for a young woman who hardly speaks to anyone outside her family, the task is far more difficult than it seems. Enlisted into helping by his overbearing mother, Tom invites coworker and former classmate Jim O'Connor over for dinner, and the game begins. But in this contentious family, where everything that can go wrong does, can the charming young O'Connor succeed in breaking Laura out of her shell?

The Glass Menagerie is a character piece, where though not much actually happens, the audience still comes out of the play with a detailed mental portrait of each figure onstage and how they exist in the world. More interesting, then, is what director Christopher Scott and Masterworks Theater chose to add to the script, such as in the decision to make Amanda's two children (and absent husband) African American, introducing an entirely new racial dynamic to the complicated class and regional tensions of the piece.

Not only did wealthy debutante Amanda run off with a working class man who subsequently abandoned her, then; she turned down all of her plantation owner suitors to marry a black man, who then abandoned her far from home in a life she never would have imagined for herself. From a modern perspective, the change makes perfect sense, allowing audiences to further understand Amanda's alienation from the life she grew up with and Tom's constantly frustrated ambitions for a better life than that of a factory worker.

Also fascinating to consider from today's point of view is Laura's disability, which in this performance is described as having once been more prominent (she wore an ankle brace in high school) but now is completely invisible. Meanwhile, she is inflicted with a debilitating shyness that today we would likely call an anxiety disorder, while the characters in the play, lacking such a framework, can only look out for her as best they can while being constantly frustrated by her inability to function in society. So, with a physical disability that her family often discusses but cannot be seen, and a mental illness that no one else can recognize as more than an affect, what is Laura's responsibility to her family and to herself, and her family's to her?

Tennessee Williams called this piece a "memory play," and as Tom, functioning as our narrator, explains at the start of the performance, "Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted" and "everything seems to happen to music," imbuing the entire play with a dreamlike atmosphere. In fact, nearly half the play takes place during a power outage, and this lack of illumination is fully embraced by the production so that the actors onstage must go beyond what is visible to connect with their audience. While it takes time to adjust to this lack of clarity, it is a welcome change from the sterility of a traditionally lit stage and allows you to use your imagination along with the characters.

This device of the narrator, in which Tom steps in between scenes to reflect on themes, theatrical conventions, storytelling and more, is used to great effect, and Richard Prioleau manages to make those interludes spellbinding. Saundra Santiago's performance as Amanda is simultaneously a masterful tour de force and so infuriating that, were you to meet her in real life, you might be driven to acts of physical violence in an attempt to get her to finally stop talking. Olivia Washington as Laura is likewise both frustrating and intensely relatable as her extreme fragility renders her unable to articulate her desires, while even Doug Harris as the gentleman caller demonstrates hidden depths as a need to be admired emerges from under a simple, charming personality.

This is a show that takes characters to their breaking points, though it may not appear that way at first. Standout moments, then, include such gems as O'Connor temporarily breaking Laura out of her shell to dance around the dark living room and Tom's enraged rant to his mother about the "opium dens" he frequents when she refuses to believe where he goes out to at night. A compelling mixture of the sweet and the infuriating, Masterworks Theater Company's The Glass Menagerie is an engaging new take on the play, and a compelling argument for the teaching of classic plays through live performance instead of simply reading. The best plays deserve to be seen.

The Glass Menagerie plays at the 47th Street Theater through May 30.

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