I’m pretty sure everyone who has studied theatre has read, performed scenes from, and seen at least a production or two of The Glass Menagerie, by the great Tennessee Williams. Patrons and devotees of the theatre have, no doubt, seen their fair share of productions as well. It’s a great play, by one of the greatest American playwrights. Is that reason enough to attend the current production at the Mark Taper Forum? Great play by a great playwright? There seems to be an unwritten rule in theatre (that fascinates me, frankly) that when mounting a production of a classic, it must have a new “spin” or “take” on it. As if a new angle must be explored to make it worthy of being mounted again. The production at the Taper, under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, does not breach the unwritten rule. It has it’s own view, and it happens to be an intriguing one.
The Glass Menagerie is a memory play. Tom Wingfield (Patch Darragh) opens the play in a New Orleans hotel room writing, writing, writing… not so coincidentally, Tennessee Williams (born Tom Williams), after being hired with a fat salary at MGM to be a writer for their stars, couldn’t seem to take the focus off of his own autobiographical script, The Gentleman Caller, long enough to do the job well. He presented the script to the studio, it was rejected, and he was fired for not focusing on what he was hired to do. The devastated Williams took a trip to New Orleans and locked himself in a hotel room to begin writing, writing, writing… and transformed The Gentleman Caller to The Glass Menagerie that we know and love today. This launched his career. Is it Tennessee (Tom) Williams or Tom Wingfield we see at the top of the play? Edelstein leaves that up to interpretation. Tom never leaves the stage, as the storyteller… and the story is obviously Tom’s/Tennessee’s story. Knowing just a few tidbits of the life of Tennessee Williams will leave no doubt. Edelstein does a truly fantastic job of highlighting the autobiographical aspects, sprinkling it throughout the play. That’s the “take” and it’s done well.
Is the gentle and intriguing autobiographical element the reason to see this production? No. No it’s not. Go see this play because it is quite possibly the best, most solid production you may ever have the chance to see.
Go see this production because the cast is amazing. The opportunity to see the much loved Judith Ivey, as Amanda Wingfield, shouldn’t be missed. The ease with which she handles the role is a sight to behold. She does a disservice to actors everywhere… as she makes acting look easy, leading everyone and their brother thinking they can do it too. Yep, she’s that good. Keira Keeley has a strong hold on the fragile Laura. Her handle of the physical disability along with a unique vocal choice is quite good. These 2 ladies, along with the aforementioned Patch Darragh (who took me a bit to warm up to but inevitably superb), comprised the original cast from the premiere at the Warf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. They’ve been performing these roles together for quite a while now, and the family chemistry works. Brilliantly. Newcomer to the cast Ben McKenzie as Jim O’Connor (better known as the Gentleman Caller) may be the weak link of the four… and shame on me for having “weak” and “Ben” in the same sentence. It’s not right, because he’s good.
Go see this production if you find yourself wondering why I haven’t given a synopsis of the play. You don’t already know it? Every theatre person, every actor, should see The Glass Menagerie at some point. You can see a good production now, or countless other opportunities to see a crummy production, will surely be available soon. Why not see an inspiring production, now? To top it off, you have the benefit of good production value (as is typical of the Taper) that only aids in drawing one into the world of the play. We can thank Michael Yeargan (set design), Martin Pakledinaz (costume), and Jennifer Tipton (lighting designer) for that.
Want to geek out, enhance your experience and fully realize the genius of the direction of Gordon Edelstein (not to mention Tennessee Williams)? Do a little research of the life of TW. Theatre geeks, seriously, I’m talking to you. The autobiographical details are gems, just too good to miss.
Mark Taper Forum, Ends Oct. 17
2 hours, 55 minutes… yes, it’s a long one.