Studio Tenn marks the midway point of their current season by presenting one of Tennessee Williams’ much-beloved, and earliest major works, “The Glass Menagerie”. After two hugely successful weeks, the show wraps its run at Jameson Hall in the Factory at Franklin with a final matinee performance at 2 p.m. on Sunday, February 28.
“The Glass Menagerie” is one of those plays familiar to nearly everyone, as it’s frequently on the required reading lists at most high schools. Even so, or perhaps because, some 70+ years after it’s debut, “The Glass Menagerie” seems relegated to a faint memory. That would probably suit Williams just fine, considering the play itself is based loosely on his own memories of his melodramatic mother and his cognitively tenuous sister.
For Studio Tenn’s production, they’re reuniting the entire cast from the company’s inaugural 2010/2011 season with Nan Gurley as Amanda Wingfield, the aforementioned overbearing mother given to histrionics; Elliott Sikes is fragile young Laura Wingfield; Eric D. Pasto-Crosby plays Tom Wingfield, Amanda’s son and Laura’s brother and Brent Maddox as Jim O’Connor, Tom’s friend, and the hoped savior of the family.
Matt Logan and Mitch White’s set of the Wingfield’s apartment is a marvel at first site. The walls are surreally constructed of panes of glass, rather than a literal representation of tattered wallpaper normally indicative of the Wingfield family’s station in life in the mid-40s that would typically be the go-to set design. Presenting the apartment made of glass walls isn’t only visually stunning, it subconsciously conjures ideals ranging from the saying “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” to a reminder of the fragility of the material as it mimics the uncertain state of those who dwell within those walls. Whatever the case, Logan’s genius as director and set designer shines through in the presence of those glass walls.
Once the play begins, Pasto-Crosby’s Tom immediately addresses the audience and informs them that what they’re about to see are his memories and in being so, may or may not be exactly what happened. This little disclaimer immediately rings relatable, for who hasn’t reconstructed an earlier memory to suit their own narrative?
Basically, “The Glass Menagerie” tells the tale of a downtrodden family trio, Amanda, the mother, who in spite of her bossy behavior only wants to secure a future for her cripple, lonely daughter Laura. Laura, who because of her physical disability has been guarded and made both fearful of others and herself, finds contentment amongst her phonograph records and her collection of small glass animals. And Tom, Amanda’s son and Laura’s brother, who because of circumstances, finds himself head of a household he longs to leave. Given to drink, and dreams he hopes to one day escape his situation by joining the merchant marines. Adding hope and drama to the mix, Amanda urges Tom to invite a friend home for dinner. Of course she has a not-so-hidden agenda of turing Tom’s unsuspecting friend into a long-awaited suitor for Laura, thus hoping to solve the family’s problems in one fell swoop.
Amanda, a mother, once hopeful of social status and a loving home, torn by the failure of her own relationship when her husband abandoned the family, as she puts it, “He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distance”, is blissfully, annoyingly, but lovingly played by the brilliant Nan Gurley. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Nan Gurley is the grande dame of Nashville Theatre. Seen previous this season in both Studio Tenn’s “Gypsy” and “It’s A Wonderful Life”, Gurley proves time and time again she can take any role and make it her own.
Pasto-Crosby’s Tom manages an uneasy balance of compassion for his high-handed mother with his own dreams of escaping to live his own life. If the character of Tom was born of William’s own experiences, the playwright must have manifested a more virile image of himself than the reality of the author’s life would suggest. In the capable hands of Pasto-Crosby, Tom, while just as tortured by the hand he’s been dealt, seems the sole character who just might be able to change things himself.
Laura Wingfield is played to frail perfection by Elliott Sikes. Sikes perfectly presents Laura’s fragility as she deals with not only her own physical disadvantages, but also her domineering mother in such a way that you feel empathy, not sympathy, for the character.
Aiding in the empathy for Laura is Brent Maddox as Jim O’Connor, Tom’s friend from work who joins our despondent trio for dinner near the show’s final act. Maddox’s Jim comes across as such a genuinely nice guy, it’s easy to see why Amanda would want him to take care of her beloved daughter. Maddox has an everyman presence about him that sets the audience at ease, and even if for a fleeting moment, knowing full well nothing ever turns out happily ever after in a Tennessee Williams play, we find ourselves hoping against hope that he will indeed save the day.
Even though I’ve seen countless productions of “The Glass Menagerie” over the years, thanks to Gurley’s nuanced performance, for the first time, I found myself being reminded of the relationship between the overbearing Edith Bouvier Beale and her quirky, but lovable daughter Little Edie who came to cult status in The Maysles Brothers’ documentary “Grey Gardens”. Whether by directorial intent or divine coincidence (I suspect the former rather than the latter, knowing director Logan’s attention to detail) at a crucial moment in the show, Amanda, who has excused herself to the kitchen, can be heard singing “We Belong Together”. The tune was originally featured in the Hammerstein/Kern 1932 Broadway musical, “Music in The Air”, but is etched in my mind as the song Edith Bouvier Beale sings in the above mentioned documentary. A lovely little subconscious wink that can be taken two ways, either Amanda is trying to suggest to Laura’s suitor that the two of them belong together, or, perhaps more telling, that Amanda knows she and her daughter are destined to endure life side by side.
Studio Tenn’s “The Glass Menagerie” continues with performances through Sunday, February 28. Click Here for tickets. Up next at Studio Tenn, “The Ray Legacy”, a musical tribute to legend Ray Charles, with performances April 14-May 1. For tickets or more information, Click Here.
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