The Glass Menagerie Shines Once More at the Guthrie

The strike of a match in complete darkness lights a cigarette.

A spotlight slowly fades up on Narrator, Tom Wingfield, age thirty-five, standing on a bare stage. His monologue paints a portrait of the hard times in which this "memory" will take place. Wooden skeletons of buildings, fire escapes of metal and neon signs shining pink, fly in weightless from the rafters. Thus begins the Guthrie Theater's latest production of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie."

Tracey Maloney (Laura Wingfield) & Harriet Harris (Amanda Wingfield) make a wish upon the moon

Widely regarded as one of Williams' most autobiographical works, "The Glass Menagerie" is the tale of The Wingfield Family. Amanda Wingfield, played by Harriet Harris, is a dignified Southern Belle who has found herself up north, left by her husband 16 years prior, with her glory days of cotillions and handsome gentlemen callers well behind her. But that doesn't stop her from talking about it incessantly.

Tom, played by Randy Harrison, is the restless son who has become the reluctant breadwinner for his family, even though all he wants to do is follow in his father's footsteps and run off to find adventure or possibly become a writer. Laura, played by Tracey Maloney, is the strikingly shy daughter who spends all her time listening to old records and polishing her glass animals, because the very thought of socializing or working makes her violently ill.

In this particular winter, Amanda learns that her daughter has skipped out on typing school because "it gives her indigestion." Since learning a vocation is a hopeless option for Laura, Amanda embarks on the next logical step: to find her daughter a husband. She harasses Tom into asking a friend from the warehouse over for dinner. And it is this unwitting 'gentleman caller' who suddenly becomes the potential answer to the entire family's prayers.

Randy Harrison as Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie

Director Joe Dowling's interpretation of the Tennessee Williams classic makes an interesting choice that is sure to have purists of the play up in arms. Dowling divides the role of the son Tom, into two parts. Tom is both the Narrator (Bill McCallum) that guides the audience through this memory and Young Tom himself (Harrison) within the memory. Someone who saw the play the same night as me actually said that "Tennessee Williams would roll over in his grave. Ok, maybe not, but he would certainly sit up."

Bill McCallum and Randy Harrison share the role of Tom Wingfield in this latest Guthrie Theater production

However, as a storytelling device, it does works. Tom the Narrator preserves the illusion of the memory by being the only person to break the fourth wall. Moreover, it is an opportunity for the audience to see how Tom feels about what he did in his youth. It was wonderful to watch this character remember how hot his temper ran, and feel again his profound pity for his crippled sister and witness his persistent disdain for his mother.  At the very least, splitting the character in two provides a fine example of how compelling an actor can be just in presence, without the luxury of actual dialogue. And both Harrison and McCallum do really wonderful interior work.

Harriet Harris plays the role of her dreams in The Glass Menagerie

Harriet Harris'  Amanda is amazing with the constantly nagging and shaming and manipulating of her adult children. She needles Tom to "sit up straight", "don't drink too much", "Chew, chew!" For the better part of play, you want to strangle her for Tom. Just when the character becomes most irritating, Harris makes us believe it is all a manifestation of a desperate mother's love.

Randy Harrison's Tom has the good fortune to be the only character in the play that will actually challenge Amanda. Their scene work is remarkable. Together they create a mother-son relationship that is such a train wreck, peppered with animosity and ridicule, that you just can't look away. On contrast, during the middle of Act One, the two characters find themselves in a silent war of wills, in which Tom allows his mother to win by being the first to apologize. And for a brief moment, the audience sees the love that has been lost between them.

Williams anoints Jim, the Gentleman Caller, as the play's "symbol of what could be". As such, this production's Jim is a walking, talking platitude, cheerfully repeating phrases someone else told him to say and still trying to convince himself as he repeats them. Jim was a welcomed dose of comic relief in a play filled with tension. Jonas Goslow portrays Jim as a cross between the junior varsity jock and a love-hungry puppy. His scene work with Maloney in slowly bringing Laura out of her shell is truly well paced and well acted by both.

Laura Wingfield (Tracey Maloney) opens up to a Gentleman Caller (Jonas Goslow)

And after the wonderful mood set by the lights and music were over... After the great acting that had me rooting for a different character each scene... Once the play was done, my prevailing feeling was: It made me feel uncomfortable. But I count that as another success of the production.

Despite the many laugh-out-loud moments in the show, "The Glass Menagerie" is a story of family dysfunction that does not have a happy ending. The play serves as a timeless reminder that it's not that uncommon to wake up one morning and find that your family, your friends, your life have nailed you into a "two by four situation". So be careful to whom and for what you compromise your identity. Because what you should do for love and what you must do for self-preservation are often polar opposites.

"The Glass Menagerie" runs Tuesday through Sunday, January 20 - March 25, 2007, at The Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage,  818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55415

Call Box office for showtimes and ticket availability. 612-377-2224

 Photo Credits: T. Charles Erickson

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