The Glass Menagerie

Mad Cow captures energy of Williams’ Menagerie

Mad Cow Theatre, Orlando, Florida

From The Orlando Weekly, 2000

Tiny animal figurines arranged to perfection in their little glass world is Tennessee Williams’ choice of an antithesis to the characters in his 1945 The Glass Menagerie. Three members of a poor St. Louis family, like the ornaments, are trapped. But in their world, they don’t fit in and are struggling to justify their existence in a place and time foreign to them. In the new Mad Cow Theatre production, powerful actors bring that struggle to life at the Second Stage of the Civic Theatres in Loch Haven Park.

This was Williams’ breakthrough, a semi-autobiographical memory play that won him not only the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award, but also a reputation as one of America’s leading post-war playwrights. Williams used his own feeling of isolation growing up poor in the South to fashion the character of Tom, played powerfully in this production by Tom Stearns. Tom yearns for adventure and an escape from his unfulfilling warehouse job and his stifling home life.

Tom’s mother, Amanda, also feels out of place and disappointed by life. But unlike Tom, who is constantly looking forward in time for some way to fulfill his dreams, Amanda is always drawn back, to the more genteel life she knew in Mississippi. She desperately wants her children to live out the dreams she could not. Finally, there is Laura, Tom’s sister, crippled both emotionally and physically, who retreats to her glass toy collection, preferring it to the four plain walls of her room and her mother’s constant obsessing over finding her a suitor, a “gentleman caller” to bring her out of her shell.

Directed by Trudy Bruner, this production is well conceived and seems suited to the “black box” space of the Second Stage. Instead of using the proscenium that the script calls for, William Elliott designed the production with a thrust into the audience. The thrust has the effect of pulling the audience into not only the set itself but the minds of the characters, particularly that of Tom, who serves as the narrator.  His narrative moments, which serve as asides to the reality of the story, are usually highlighted by a spotlight while the rest of the stage goes black. These lighting choices, many of them called for in the script, are used effectively as is the background music and lighting fade-outs at the end of certain scenes.

This play can belong to any of the three main characters or, indeed, even to the gentleman caller himself, whose visit is, at times, the main focus of the story. But this production is Tom’s. He at one point refers to his friend, Jim, the gentleman caller, as a person who is so charismatic that he has the “continual spotlight” in life. Stearns’ strong performance and connection with the other actors puts him in this continual spotlight throughout the play, even when the literal spotlight is on others. He makes some odd choices of inflection, dialect and physical motions, but by the second act, they simply seem part of the character’s nature and are easily forgotten.

Robin Olson, as Amanda, the slightly tyrannical mother and eccentric southern belle, captures much of the richness of both the Mississippi dialect and the character herself. Although her performance can’t quite match the power of Stearns’ and she has trouble bringing out some of the humor in her role, she allows the audience several glimpses into Amanda’s heart.  Laura is a particularly difficult role because there is so much going on inside the character, and her shy and quiet manner puts restraints on the actress in how she can let that inner emotion show through.  Jamie Wilson does a competent job, particularly in the second act, of showing those emotions while still being true to the character’s reserved nature. When she is rebuffed romantically, we feel her heartbreak and realize why life inside her little glass menagerie is muchsafer and more predictable for her than life in the real world.

The gentleman caller, played by Stephen Middleton, is a person more comfortable with his life. He does not feel the isolation and despair the others feel. Therefore, his energy on stage contrasts greatly with the energy of the others. Middleton captures most of this, and his scene with Laura is both mesmerizing and effectively staged.

The four cast members, under Bruner’s direction, are true to Williams’ intentions for the play while breathing new emotional life into the characters. Stearns makes the part of Tom his own while capturing much of the spirit of the playwright himself.  The Glass Menagerie continues its run through April 2.