Tuesday, August 1, 2017

"The Glass Menagerie" at Cal Shakes

Cal Shakes photo by Kevin Berne
So the night after seeing the rather disappointing Splendour at Aurora, we headed over the hill to see Cal Shakes' production of the Tennessee Williams classic, The Glass Menagerie. I'm sure I have expressed before how much I enjoy seeing plays outdoors in the Bruns Amphitheatre. It's a lovely spot with nice weather. And unlike the night before, I had expectations about the play, having seen it previously.

The Play

The Glass Menagerie is a family drama about (among other things) respectability and the facades people put up to appear respectable to others. It's also a remarkably prescient piece about children who "fail to launch." Set in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1943. Framed by narration by Tom (Sean San Jose), we get the story of Tom and his sister Laura (Phoebe Fico) who both live with their mother, Amanda (Karen Aldridge). Tom works a dead-end job to support the family. Painfully shy, "crippled" Laura sits home listening to records and playing with the eponymous collection of animal figurines. Amanda, who had hoped for more from her life, craves the respectability that she believes she had in her youth as a popular social butterfly. Tom takes refuge "at the movies," though he seems to come home very late and very drunk most nights, while Amanda frets that Laura does not receive any "gentleman callers."

Eventually Amanda convinces Tom to invite one of his coworkers (Rafael Jordan) to dinner, hoping that this gentleman caller will be the turning point for Laura and the family.

The Production

The first and most obvious production choice was the casting of all actors of color. The Wingfield family is normally portrayed as white, but other than some early, racially insensitive remarks by Amanda, the story works well with the casting of minorities. Indeed, it serves to remind the audience how universal many of the themes of the play are. Aldridge plays the former debutante to a T, blending the frustrated Southern gentry with the thwarted social climber largely without the histrionics that the role often seems to entail. And San Jose bring a flippant, insouciant air to Tom that masks much of the bitterness that can easily overcome that character. Indeed, all the cast manage to make their characters much more likable than I have previously encountered or envisioned, and that's a pleasant change. The fact that the interpersonal fireworks are kept at such a low level actually makes the story all the more powerful. Instead of shouts and tears we get real intensity and repressed emotion.

Although I ultimately came to feel the set was pretty effective, the start from a basically empty frame that was then filled in with furnishings and decoration was distracting. And then we had to make sure we opened and closed the sliding door/walls, because they were there. It could have been worse, but it felt overdone.

The production also made good use of the amphitheater space, with Tom especially covering a lot of ground as he left for work or the movies, still engaged with the action on stage.

But ultimately it was about the actors and the words, and those were very good. The actors treated the text with respect, letting a natural presentation of the dialogue and interactions focus our attention on the story and the situation, rather than drawing attention to themselves.

Bottom Line

I liked it, much more than I expected to. The cast were all excellent, really bringing Williams's words to life in a way that was both appropriate to the period but also accessible to the modern sensibility. The show was not about people in 1943, but just about people.

Sadly, this show has also run to its end before I could get around to writing about it, but combined with the strong effort of the season-opening As You Like It, this bodes well for the two remaining plays of the season. I'm feeling good about subscribing to Cal Shakes this year!

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