Oh, those Wingfields.
They can be so poetic, scary, heartbreaking, nuanced.
The clan at the center of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” is paying a visit to the Old Pueblo, settling in on the Arizona Repertory Theatre stage.
In this production, Amanda and her children, Tom and Laura, have the poetic part down well — who wouldn’t, when speaking Williams’ eloquent prose, packed with gorgeous images, infectious rhythms and a stunning lyricism?
What this production, directed by Brent Gibbs, lacks, however, is the scary, the heartbreaking and, especially, the nuance.
The story is a memory as told to us by Tom Wingfield. Years ago, Tom, who longed to write but was stuck in a dead-end job, escaped his demanding, seemingly frivolous mother and the sister he loved deeply in order to breathe, to make his own life. He will relive those times with the audience, as he steps into the past to tell the tale.
But memory can be fuzzy. We are never really sure how close his perception is to reality. And it doesn’t make much difference — it’s his story, and he gets to tell it the way he likes.
Tom tells it as a way of exorcism — when he stalked out on his mother and sister, he left in a fury because he was too weak to leave without being in one. There’s a guilt there, especially over his abandonment of Laura. Perhaps Tom hopes telling the story will steal some of its power.
Williams’ semiautobiographical play draws a stunning picture of a family struggling to survive during the Great Depression.
What we don’t sense from this production is the love that flows under the histrionics. If that is absent, it’s difficult to grasp the tragedy of the play.
Maedell Dixon’s Amanda has the humor in tact, but she misses the deep river of sorrow, fear and disappointments that shape the character. Amanda is a fading Southern belle who is used to charming men. But the man she married abandoned her and the children, leaving her with nothing but her wits to support them. This has made her venomous, demanding and needy. The deeply pained Amanda has a rich, turbulent inner life; she’s suffered, she’s lost, she’s delusional, and she wants desperately for her children to be happy. That important subtext wasn’t clear with Dixon’s Amanda.
Paul Michael Thomson is a fine actor, but he does not have the gravitas needed to portray Tom’s anguish, both as a young man living in a home he desperately wants to escape, and as an older man looking back at his earlier days.
Joey Rudman gave shape to Jim, the gentleman caller Amanda has long begged Tom to bring home for Laura. Jim once was a big man on his high school campus and yearns for that glory again. The thinnest of the Williams’ characters in this play, Rudman played it nicely. But there was this: He was the only one without a Southern accent.
Faring best in this production was Kathleen Cannon as Laura, who is innocent, fragile and painfully shy. Cannon captured the delicacy of the character. It was easy to understand her longing and her fears.
“The Glass Menagerie” is full of ghosts from the past, and lighting designer Eve Bandi cast just the right shadings and lights to underscore that.
Also adding to the sense of a past that shattered the family and still haunts Tom is the work by scenic designer Kayla D. Nault. Her set of an abandoned apartment with dust and broken furniture worked beautifully. And the soft whispers from the past added to the sense of haunting memories; sound designer John Millerd can take credit for that effective touch.
“The Glass Menagerie” is Williams’ first hit play and it rightfully launched his career. It is a brilliant piece, and a tough, tough play to do.
While this production isn’t perfect, the UA deserves props for taking it on.