On Stage: ‘The Glass Menagerie’

The Tennessee Williams classic comes to Ford’s Theatre. 

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and for the Ford’s Theatre production of Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie,” directed by Mark Ramont (Photo by Scott Suchman)

In “The Glass Menagerie,” the narrator, Tom, warns at the beginning of the memory play that what the audience sees “may not be precisely what happened.” Wearing a shabby raincoat and fedora, Tom is at the front of the stage standing on a St. Louis apartment’s fire escape smoking a cigarette, looking back over a painful period.

All memories are inexact, but the poignancy evoked in Tennessee Williams autobiographical, “The Glass Menagerie,” is heartrending. And the Ford’s Theatre production was an inspired addition to the season’s offering. It is a reminder that too often in the quest for new works, great American classics like “The Glass Menagerie,” are left on the “done that” shelf. The decision to stage it is a credit to the theater’s commitment to the great works of the American theater.

Tom, the surrogate for Williams, (whose name was Thomas), looks back to the depression years when he was living in an apartment with his mother and sister. He is stuck in a dead-end job in a shoe warehouse and has unfulfillable dreams of becoming a poet. He is also trapped trying to help his mother, Amanda, pay the bills. Amanda, a one-time Southern belle, fell in love with a handsome man, “a telephone man who fell in love with long distance,” and abandoned her and her two children.

Madeleine Potter balances the nagging Amanda with a sensitive understanding of her underlying fears and motivations. She pushes her son to find a gentleman caller for his sister, Laura, who is fragile, has a self-conscious limp and suffers from an inferiority complex and a debilitating shyness. She lives in her own world — a collection of glass figurines.

There is no question in Tom Story’s portrayal that he is protective of Laura, a waifish Jenna Sokolowski. But against his better judgement, invites a co-worker home for dinner. Amanda is thrilled. She sees this as an opportunity for Laura to experience something of her youth in the Mississippi delta where she was pretty and popular and attracted many gentlemen callers.

Amanda is exasperating, but Potter knows what is motivating Amanda and plays her sympathetically. Overriding everything is what will eventually happen to Laura who is lost in her world of glass animals. Potter is a handsome woman who gives Amanda’s memories of popularity a touch of credibility.

Laura knows her mother’s concerns, but has no expectations. She has become content with her menagerie and the music that drifts into the apartment from the dance hall across the alley. There is a compassion for Sokolowski’s Laura, but we don’t pity her.

It is Tom’s story and under Ramont’s direction, he is often too allowed to be shrill and that mutes his impact. There doesn’t seem to be a way out of his situation. He needs to escape, but he is torn with his emotional responsibilities. His character needs, however, to project less of the anger and more of the sadness.

Tom does bring the gentleman caller, Tom Keegan, an affable co-worker who was a high school over-achiever who attended the same school as Tom and Laura, who had a secret crush on him. When he arrives for dinner it looks as though Amanda’s plans won’t work because Laura is so frightened she won’t come to the table.

They eventually talk and Keegan deftly creates one of the sweetest moments in the play. He manages to get Laura to dance with him. It did seem like an odd decision on Ramont’s part to create an almost professional looking dance sequence with Laura, ignoring her handicap. There is a point to fantasy of it. There is no future for her with the gentleman caller, but it is a brief moment she will remember as a high point in her isolated life.

Ramont did seem to want to soften the melancholy reality of play and at time was looking for laugh lines when we want to cry for the kind of regretful memories that exists for everyone. As Tom warned in his narration his memories may not be precisely what occurred, but for him they are too real. This production emphasizes that the wisdom of Ford’s Theater in scheduling “The Glass Menagerie,” an important play that deserves its standing in the pantheon of great 20th century theater.

“The Glass Managerie” runs through February 21, 2016. Tickets range from $17-$64 and can be found at www.fords.org or by calling Ticketmaster at (800) 982-2787.

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