Monday, November 1, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Rise and Shine"

by Douglas Messerli

Tennessee Williams The Glass Menagerie / opened March 31, 1945 at the Playhouse Theatre, New York

Tennessee Williams The Glass Menagerie (New York: Random House, 1945/reprinted by New Directions in 1949)

Tennessee Williams The Glass Menagerie / this production premiered March 24, 2010 at the Laura Pels Theatre, New York / the performance I saw of this production was on October 17, 2010 at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles

Although Williams' wondrous The Glass Menagerie is a seemingly simple play, it is one of the most difficult to perform because it depends almost entirely upon the actors' interpretations and, most particularly, on tone. If the characters, particularly the dominant mother, Amanda, is too harsh we lose much of the author's comedy; I agree with Frank Dwyer's statement in the theater program, that Williams is a comic writer. Yet Amanda cannot be simply a comic figure or the audience will not be able to comprehend her son Tom's desperation and his final act of leaving his mother and sister to fend for themselves. Laura must be shy, almost invisible, yet be able to stir up one's sympathy and even love. Finally, the right balance between these three figures is extraordinarily difficult to attain, a problem I perceived as early as 1966 when I saw a production—also proclaimed as a comic portrayal—at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.

After a successful run in New Haven at the Long Wharf Theater and rave reviews from New York critics for its performances at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, I looked forward to its reincarnation in Los Angeles. Judith Ivey's Amanda Wingfield had been described as a performance of a lifetime, and few, if any, critics found fault with the whole.

Indeed Ivey is quite remarkable in her role as the imperious, scheming, prompting, praising, condemning and, at times, simply silly mother who keeps her children close, out of both worry over her daughter's fate and her own neediness. She is a monster, but, as Ivey makes clear, for the most part she is a hilarious one. Her incessant greeting to each morning, "Rise and Shine," may cause Tom to crawl deeper into the covers, but it is also a desperate command for him to match her pact to make the best of life, despite the fact that she has had little with which to work. It is almost a prayer for her children to live up to their potentialities—for Tom's sexual and creative awakening and for Laura's ability to charm and, hopefully, socially engage, even if it is only in the reflection of her glass figurines.

Tom is at best a dreamer, at worst a slacker, a man, who like his father, is soon to desert her. Laura is nearly agoraphobic, so shy that she can hardly communicate; accordingly there no hope that she can ever land a husband or a job. As Tom repeats throughout the play, she does nothing but play old records and care for her little glass treasures, made up mostly of small animals which her mother describes as her "glass menagerie."

It is a miracle, accordingly, that despite the fact that things—including her children—have a "way of turning out so badly," that Amanda meets each day with the humor she does. Ivey captures both her determination and her almost girlish delight in living with a great gusto. If you cannot exactly call her performance naturalistic or even natural—the continual dropping of words at the end of sentences and long pauses in those same sentences often make her art feel affected—we nonetheless believe her acting, and we come to comprehend the woman behind.

Yet this play is far from a perfect rendition of Williams' great art. In my estimation several aspects of director Gordon Edelstein's production take the work in a wrong direction from the very first instant of the play. Whereas most of the action of Williams' reading version of his work occurs in the Wingfield house, Edelstein begins it in a hotel room where Tom, now a budding young writer, attempts to type out the play's first passages. Certainly we recognize the autobiographical details in Williams' published version of the play, but by exaggerating these, by insisting that what we are witnessing was written by Tom, he moves the play away from its dream-like quality and puts it into the mundane world of script writing. In the published version of the play, Tom is dressed in this first scene as a Merchant Seaman, not as an aspiring author. The fusing of the hotel room and a livable house, moreover, distracts from what I see as the focal point of the play, family life.

At the same time, Edelstein and set designer Michael Yeargan have abandoned Williams' suggestion for a screen or scrim on which words and images appear, announcing each scene, which parallels Tom's nightly activity of attending the movies, and further takes us into the delusional world of the Wingfields. The screen also adds another dimension of humor to the play.
Having determined that Tom is a young Tennessee, actor Patch Darragh, as if channeling Williams, twangs away in high southern, slightly effeminate voice that I found rather irritating. In my reading, Tom, in some respects, is as dreamy as his sister, despite the fact that he is the narrator. It is, after all, described by the author as a "dream play," in the manner of Strindberg.

But in this version Tom doggedly dukes it out with his mother, stretching his more gentle memories, at times, into one-liners as if he were playing vaudeville. While there is no doubt that in his dreadful imprisonment in the Wingfield home he has learned how to turn his spleen into verbal wit, Tom must remain likeable if we are to endure his ultimate act of abandonment. Along with his whining invective, at times I longed for Tom, like his father, to fall in love with "long distance" quick. As unendurable as life with Amanda Wingfield might be, I'd give anything for her to call me with a sympathetic plea that I resubscribe to a magazine.

While in the earlier scenes, Keira Keeley found a good balance between Laura's severe shyness and the gradual revelation of an inner life, in the important scene of "The Gentleman Caller," Keeley seemed to transform her character into a borderline histrionic, which turned that important breakthrough encounter into an even more painful experience.

The hyped-up energy of Ben McKenzie's Gentleman Caller did not help. Yes, in Williams' original, he does stretch his body out in shadow upon the wall, but need he turn the act into a series of jumping jacks to make his point? Not only did we fear that he might break Laura's glass collection but, in his vigorous antics, that he might crush her as well. That scene is all about two young people discovering and sharing a certain affectionate gentleness that family life has never before offered—at least to Laura. He may indeed have another woman to whom he is engaged, but for the moment all his intentions are focused on the young woman in front of him, who comes momentarily alive; it is perhaps the only moment of potential sexuality that she will have in her life. If she is to psychically survive she must carry this moment in her imagination. But in his energetic portrayal of the young man with a future she can never have, McKenzie drew our attention away from Laura at the very moment when Keeley nearly buried her character in her portrayal of clinical "avoidant personality disorder."

It is utterly amazing that the play did still survive somewhat intact, and strongly moved its audience. Ivey clearly kept the play alive simply by her captivating acting, embodying the comical survivor—equal almost to Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon—Williams created.

Los Angeles, Halloween 2010
Copyright (c) 2010 by Douglas Messerli

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