The Glass Menagerie
The African-American Shakespeare Company
In 1944, Tennessee Williams skyrocketed from near obscurity to wide-spread fame with the premiere of The Glass Menagerie, a play touted as a memory play both in the script and in its evident connections to the playwright and his family of an excessively attention-seeking mother, a mentally and physically fragile sister, and a long-absent father. In the decades since, many revivals of the 1930’s, St. Louis, middle-class setting have time and again been recreated on the stages on and off Broadway, in theatrical centers worldwide, and in thousands of towns where many of high-school-aged actors have cut their acting eye-teeth on the four, now iconic roles created by Williams. But in all productions that I have personally seen from London to New York to San Francisco, the common element is that the casts have been all-white.
The current staging of The Glass Menagerie by the African-American Shakespeare Company is a powerfully different take on Tennessee William’s memories, with a cast whose skins are varying shades of brown and whose heritages are a mixture of African-American, Filipino, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous. The result is a production that profoundly speaks to the interplay of disillusions and disappointments, feelings of entrapment due to obligation, and memories that continue to haunt throughout a lifetime that can occur for members of Any and Every Family – not just those that are white. As the play is about to begin, a voice sounds over the Marines’ Memorial Theatre to reiterate this last point: “This is our story, also being your story.”
Perched on the metal fire escape often to escape the apartment where he lives with mother and sister, Tom informs us that what we are about to see comes from his memories; and as such, “I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Tom is both our narrator and a participant in his own memories. He works in a shoe warehouse for a mere $65 a month, and he clearly feels obligation to support his father-less family; but Tom is at heart a poet who also often appears near suffocating inside the walls of his family’s apartment.
Elijah Fisher portrays a Tom who seems partly real and partly a hazy image of someone not really present. His Tom often looks longingly off to the side into an unseen horizon. His voice tends toward a hushed, matter-of-fact tone, and his movement about the apartment appears sometimes as if he is both there and somewhere else. He tells us, “I seem dreamy, but inside I am boiling.” His memories fail to edit the moments when the tensions inside in fact do erupt into outward shouting matches with his oft-nagging mother. Often after a verbal row with his mother, he escapes to the world of movies where he surrounds himself in newsreels, cartoons, and current blockbusters as he also plots a plan for a more permanent escape to shores and cities far away from St. Louis.
Tom seems most present and content inside the apartment when he is alone with his older sister, Laura. Unlike Tom who grabs every chance possible to leave the apartment, Laura never wants to absent herself from its protection from a world where she feels an outsider. Laura suffers a severe limp from an earlier bout with pleurosis; and even more debilitating, she is almost paralyzed by her extreme shyness. Her escape mechanism is quite opposite from Tom’s. She sits for much of the day in a corner of the apartment where she listens to records on a vintage player and attends to her collection of small, crystal animals, of which a delicate unicorn is her special companion.
As she slowly and clumsily limps in her heavy, orthopedic shoes, Mars Holscher is heart-breaking in her portrayal of a Laura who is clearly pained physically and plagued constantly in fear of having to expose herself to anyone on the outside. When her mother suggests otherwise, her Laura resorts to a corner of the couch, rocking silently back and forth, alternating in clutching her tight fists to her stomach and raising her fragile looking arms to cover her ears to avoid hearing her mother talk about missed typing classes or possible gentleman callers who might come courting the twenty-three-year-old recluse.
“Both my children are unusual,” Amanda at one point confides to whomever is listening, both of whom she continually has high hopes and makes constant demands that are beyond what either is wanting or even capable of fulfilling. Amanda exists in her own world of memories of when she lived a more comfortable life as a southern belle of sorts in Blue Mountain, Mississippi. She often recounts how there she was often surrounded in her family’s parlor – at least in her memory’s version – by a host of handsome “gentleman callers,” all wanting to secure her undivided attention. When she recalls those days, she flutters about like a butterfly, full of sighs, detailed stories, and dimpled smiles, fanning herself as if she were still in the sultry but seductive environment she remembers as home.
Amanda is worried about a son who seems too content with his warehouse job instead of seeking ways to advance himself and even more concerned by his nightly absences, with her fearing he is not at the movies but in bars living the life as a drunkard. For her daughter, she imagines almost daily that this is the day a gentleman caller will finally come, prodding her timid, mostly silent Laura to remain “fresh and pretty” for that elusive visitor. When neither child takes her suggestions for their improvements seriously, the southern-bred charm of Amanda often transforms into an erupting storm of outraged disappointment.
As Amanda, Layce Kieu is often like the star in an opera of her own making. She glides gracefully to the center stage in front of her audience of two to stream forth an aria of words with their own planned crescendos, marked accents, extended retards, and sustained syllables that float into the ears of children who have heard this song of stories many times before. Her southern accent is accompanied by grand gestures, aristocratic head held on high, and eyes that glisten with tears remembering a time when her life remembered was oh, so much better in many ways. But when one of her children fails to meet her expectations of them for yet the umpteenth time (at least by her apparent estimation), this Amanda leaves the opera stage and becomes – at least for momentarily until former gentility intervenes – like one of Disney’s female monsters with her eyes, words, and entire self being full of fire and fury. Layce Kieu commands the stage almost bigger than life.
To appease his mother’s constant pleas as well as to seek her forgiveness for his own moment of fury, Tom finally agrees to grant her wish of inviting a co-worker to dinner. Jim O’Connor walks innocently into a trap set by Amanda where the silver has been polished, table linens ironed, and Laura has been forced to don a frilly dress hopefully to lure eventually her gentleman caller to the altar. When Laura discovers that Jim is a boy she knew in high school and with whom she has ever since had a crush, she panics and heads straight to her room. Justin P. Lopez confidently conveys an easy-going and genial guest who is politely amused when Amanda herself transforms into a coquettish, flirting host and who finds a way to ease Laura’s nerves.
L. Peter Callender has created a scenic design that signals with its wall panels tilted in various directions that the otherwise modest but properly attired apartment houses a family whose foundation as a unit is more unstable than might first appear. Prominent on one panel is a large portrait hung cock-eyed of the play’s fifth character, an unseen but ever-present, absent husband and father. The panels also become screens for an ongoing array of projections that embellish current contexts, inner thoughts, and lingering memories. Also projected on a frequent basis are words and phrases reminding one of a silent movie, perhaps signaling there are underlying feelings and desires often unrevealed in this household. As effective as all the projections are, there are times that they become somewhat distracting to what is happening onstage.
The soundscape created by James Goode is particularly impressive with sounds that emit both from the city outside, other parts of the apartment, and recalled scenes of the past. Amanda’s eccentricities as well as the personal characteristics of each of the other three are well illustrated by the costumes Nia Jacobs has so ably adorned them.
While there are scattered periods of pacing when the production seems to lose some of its momentum, overall the interpretation given by Director Monica White Ndounou is cogent and engaging. With a cast that proves to a person its mettle, the African-American Shakespeare Company’s The Glass Menagerie is a welcomed retake of an old friend with the reminder that the family dynamic memories of Tennessee Williams are those that can meaningfully speak to all us of whatever background, whatever era.
Rating: 4 E
A Theatre Eddys Best Bet Production
The Glass Menagerie continues through March 26, 2023 in production by the African-American Shakespeare Company at Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter Street, 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA. Tickets are available online at https://www.african-americanshakes.org or at https://www.cityboxoffice.com/ .
Photo Credits: Joseph Giammarco