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Justice, at too long a distance

Hot Summer Nights' Glass Menagerie sacrifices emotional believability--and audience engagement--in a quest for ethical clarity


All alone in this, together: Brechtian daffodils upstage the cast in The Glass Menagerie - PHOTO BY MATTHEW ADDISON
  • Photo by Matthew Addison
  • All alone in this, together: Brechtian daffodils upstage the cast in The Glass Menagerie

They form something of a continuum, the three major productions of Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie that have been staged in the area in the past decade. In the most conventional of the group, at Raleigh Little Theatre in 1997, the late, great Saravette Trotter delved deeply into the psychology of Amanda Wingfield, a mother blindsided by the Southern aristocracy of her past, clearly acting out of concern for her young--and just as clearly smothering them to death.

Then, in February 2000, director Kent Paul gave Playmakers Rep and local audiences something to think about by focusing on the dilemma of Tom, her increasingly frustrated and artistically ambitious son whose continual self-sacrifice keeps his mother and his stay-at-home sister Laura financially afloat. Paul argued, persuasively, that Williams at heart was no nostalgist, and that his partially autobiographical work bore the enduring chill of a fate only narrowly avoided.

More than that, Paul's Menagerie suggested that traditional productions of this American classic were in fact too over-sentimental and protective, minimizing the pathology of this family, wrapping all of the characters--and Laura in particular--in what might be termed the padded gauze of memory. Paul reminded us that, as with the playwright's real-life schizophrenic sister, Rose, a little fresh air was never going to make Laura OK.

That Menagerie crystallized the human tragedy as the inability to grow or change and placed the story in a man who'd learned well the cautionary lesson of his mother: To merely see and dearly love one's own past is to risk never escaping it. That's why, in that production, Tom navigated the deep blue chambers of his memories in a longshoreman's jacket, like a seaman charting a treacherous field of ice. In the closing sequence of the text, Williams makes it clear that escape is always contingent, that the past is always in pursuit.

Director Jerome Davis' interpretation for this year's Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy Festival is even less sentimental than that turn-of-the-century turn at Playmakers. The distance between the time of the events and their retelling is underscored even before the play begins. As the audience walks in, the word "memory" is projected--in all caps--somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000-point bold in an old typewriter font, whose white letters on a black background fill a screen that stands at the back of the stage. So much for subtlety.

That's nothing compared to the other devices Davis uses to add distance between the audience and the story.

In the earlier productions mentioned, even if Amanda and Laura were arguably being filtered through Tom's guilty memory, at least we saw them face to face.

We're not entirely sure we ever meet them here. The program notes set this show's beginning on an empty stage in a seedy mid-town theater in Manhattan in the 1940s, some 10 years after the events described took place. Tom is directing other actors to relive his memories of St. Louis, a rubric Davis emphasizes by having his actors regularly move the furniture onstage to suggest changing points of view.

The program also claims that we visit Tom's memory of his one-time home. But since we never see a corresponding shift in actors Quinn Hawkesworth, Emily Ranii, Tom Martin or David Henderson, we're left to wonder when, or if, we ever leave the theater.

The question is exacerbated since other design and directing choices continually highlight the artifice of Tom's staged, mid-Manhattan vision. As with the opening "memory," Davis stretches the subtitles projected onto the screen until they are nearly as large as the actors.

This device not only distracts, it also contradicts in one place. When Ranii's Laura learns that she knows the coming Gentleman Caller, the word "terror" is flashed on the screen--though it's not so clearly indicated in Ranii's performance. (Yet another distancing device, perhaps?)

Other technical effects--including unexpected gunshot sounds synched to suddenly projected typewritten text, visuals including black-and-white photographs of flowers that morph into lurid color, semi-sophisticated television graphics, ersatz old-time high-school yearbook pages, and pictures of Depression-era breadlines--needlessly keep reminding us that, yes, this is not a realistic staging.

Unfortunately, the direction and the acting reinforce that premise. Not only does this overdose of Brecht rarely afford believable emotions, it hardly ever permits the actors--or the audience--to indulge in the decadence of ensemble acting.

Though this is my first viewing of a likable-enough Tom Martin as Tom Wingfield, Hawkesworth, Henderson and Ranii have all achieved the highest distinction in previous productions with Davis' Burning Coal Theatre Company and others in the region.

Here, it feels as though their characters have only just met one another. While that's perfectly plausible for a troupe of New York actors somewhere in the middle of a vanity production, it's also pretty unacceptable for any believable depiction of a family rapidly unraveling at the seams.

The inadvertent lesson from this production: When The Glass Menagerie is directed in this fashion, it's reduced to a set of pretty decent monologues--sticks of theatrical kindling that have carefully been separated, washed and laid out, far apart. The synergy, light and heat that would result from contact remains little more than a hypothesis.

At this reading, Hawkesworth's Amanda and Martin's Tom are relatively vivid characters. I just don't believe they've ever really lived in the same household.

This difficulty pales when considering Davis' concept and Ranii's performance of Laura. She's not only a character without a believable past, she's also a robust woman without any apparent physical or psychological disability. Any significant difference has been erased.

Yes, there's that one tart--and gratifyingly believable--snub she gives her Gentleman Caller at the start of their conversation. Aside from that, in either "rescuing" her--or never fleshing out her character to begin with--this production unintentionally reassures us that nothing's really wrong with Laura.

I must discuss a fairly large spoiler in the following paragraphs. At the end, Davis veers dramatically from Williams' stage directions during Tom's final monologue, when this Laura refuses to go gently into that good night. Those candles Tom requests be blown out stay lit, and Laura confronts Tom directly during his lines about escape.

That imaginative, daring choice reinforces Tom's "stage play" as a work of self-judgment by a man who knows he's guilty. It reminds us that Tom Wingfield abandoned his mother and sister--two women apparently incapable of supporting themselves--during the depths of the Depression. Where every earlier production I have seen excuses him on the basis of his poetic apology at the end, this show holds him accountable by having Tom hold himself to account.

Unfortunately, though, this comes only after a flood of devices have thoroughly distanced the accusers from the self-accused, and distanced the audience from this production as well.

Perhaps Davis was afraid that eloquence and emotions let off leash might blind us to the ethical dimension he wished to illuminate in this story. If so, we now know that taking this script too far toward dispassionate analysis results in a world where our investment in justice is severely limited. When characters' ties remain this conceptual, we tend not to believe--or care.

The Glass Menagerie
2 stars
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy


* Thom Pain (based on nothing), Manbites Dog Theater--As more than one actor of regional repute has noted, the concept has hilarious possibilities: a one-person show that deliberately highlights the wretched excesses of autobiographical one-person shows. That potential is all but extinguished here in a smug, self-righteous rant which needlessly insults its viewers more than its chosen topic. After exhausting its only point during the first 15 minutes, Thom Pain remains so obsessed with damning its sole subject over the long hour that follows that it never even notices its audience slipping away--literally, on the night we saw it. (Through June 25.)

** Honky-Tonk Angels, Temple Theatre--The first temptation is to say "Leave this one to the folks who just can't get the Winnebago out to Branson this year." But a country music revue desperate enough to (1) open with a very secular rewrite of that old Southern hymn "I'll Fly Away," (2) pay inexplicable tribute to noted country music mamas Whitney Houston ("I Will Always Love You") and Jane Siberry ("Calling All Angels"), and (3) plaster a happy ending onto Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" just might have more explaining to do with the homefolks than with any highfalutin' critic.

Shannon Dalton, Anne-Caitlin Donohue and Allison Lowery's solid three-part harmonies are the reason to see this show--even if low notes foiled Lowery during "Nightlife" and Donohue during "Billie Joe." It should be easy to fix the opening matinee's sound mix that buried music director Mari Jo Brown's keyboards and Dante Bruno's guitar.

Ted Swindley's script shows occasional wit: Dalton's character delivers the lyrics of Loretta Lynn's "Don't Come Home A'Drinkin'" between telephone call-backs and hang-ups from her worthless husband, and Donohue's drop-dead version of "Fancy" is a much-needed show-stopper in the second act.

But overall, Swindley's material here--in which three women interrupt marriage, career and geriatric home healthcare to find fame in Nashville--is an awful lot thinner than in his earlier, deserved hit Always, Patsy Cline. His sappy closing homily should be avoided by those with blood sugar issues.

Worse news than this? Raleigh Little Theatre has announced it's producing this show in August. Remind us to be busy. (Through June 25.)

Last week, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies announced that Byron Woods' work won second place for Arts Criticism in the 2006 AltWeekly Awards national competition.

E-mail him at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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