The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Roger Danforth. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Laura Wingfield and her Glass Menagerie; Grace Scambettera; photo: Kyra Fitzgferald and Kate Johnson
"The past turns into everlasting regret, if you let it."
Amanda Wingfield played by Christine Decker; photo: Kyra Fitzgerald and Kate Johnson
When Amanda Wingfield enters wearing an old fine lace gown adorned with thick ribbon and faded florals in the final act of Tennessee Williams' play, "The Glass Menagerie" - now on stage at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, New York - she is transformed from a frumpy, elderly matron living one step above welfare into a southern beauty with grace, style and an overwhelming sense of delicious purpose in her delirious entitled style complete with pre-1920s mannerisms and gestures. She is almost a mockery of the life she enjoyed as a girl entertaining her gentlemen callers. In the hands of actress Christine Decker the woman we meet in this moment is not a shadow or a memory, she is a living reincarnation of her former self. A headband and a series of facial expressions remove the years and her regal, aristocratic beauty is restored. She feels it and we see it and we are transformed along with her into companions from an earlier time. What Decker, the costume, the lighting and the director have wrought is an instantaneous transformation, one that continues through the act until that awful moment when the world she would relive and reinstate comes crashing down around her. It is a moment I will never forget.
This is the 31st production I have seen of this play and so it is not a play in which I still expect to find revelations. Nonetheless this sequence of moments in the last act changed all that for me. And not a moment too soon. Let me explain.
Williams' break-through play made him a star author. He was celebrated from this time onward, until his star crashed, much the way Amanda's does, leaving him damaged goods creating damaged goods. His last years and his final plays left the theater-going public cold. However, this play and a few others could be revived and even in mediocre productions without much insight into the author's intent there would be something to savor. This is not a simple piece and directgor Roger Danforth has brought something new, at least to me, to this production which must be applauded.
Tom Wingfield (read Tom Williams) is writing a play about his life in St.Louis with his mother and sister. It is a memory play, he says, one that needs construction and he does just that, narrating the tale and playing himself at an earlier time, moving in furniture as it becomes necessary for each successive scene. Like all memories this one is flawed, skewed to a cleaner variation that the 1940s audiences could accept. Tennessee Tom's sister Rose was an addled human being, over-sexed and dangerous, often schlepped to an asylum for treatment. In his memory play she, Laura, is a physically damaged, overly shy girl who cannot manage to make a viable life for herself. In this production she is played by Grace Sgambettera. This girl lives through her small collection of miniature animals forged in glass. She finds solace in long solitary walks and she avoids any connections with other folks, particularly men. Sgambettera plays much of this with charm and grace, but she replaces uncertainty with anger and fragility with pouting. Her Laura seems capable of handling situations that the script won't allow her to take on face to face. This interpretation is not an unusual one, but it does have a certain lack of grace that almost makes it feasible and honest. Her scene with her one and only gentleman caller grows better and better as she moves through it, but it never realizes the tenderness that it needs to be truly moving.
Her brother Tom is played with perfect rage and specific isolation by David Snider. His plotted attempt at conciliation with his mother and consideration for his sister results in a few tears, especially when he instructs her in his mind from a long way away and distance of time. I've shed tears now thirty-one times at this final moment of the play and it always guarantees in my mind that the play is a hit. It is Tom's story. He is the hero in that he escapes the horrors of his life into a new place that may not be better but it bests what came before it. Snider is excellent in the role, every aspect of it.
David Snider as Tom; photo: Kyra Fitzgerald and Kate Johnson
Christine Decker and Woodrow Proctor as Jim; photo: Kyra Fitzgerals and Kate Johnson
It is the final act that assures the audience its own thrills. Here, until very late in the day, Decker has her most incredible moments, making those transformations to her body, face, soul, mind and demeanor. In her hands the woman's reactions to a charming, handsome young man are touchingly obvious and deviously thrilling. We know that beau is arranged for her daughter, but the flritations that ensue are Amanda's own and Decker throws her arms, her hands and her smile into the action like an Elizabeth Taylor clone.
While it is impossible for a stalwart gentleman caller, a Jim, an Irish-American lad, to resiste her wiles, it is in his soft-spoken interactions with Laura that Woodrow Proctor has his richest moments. Even when reminiscing about their high school years, he shows a deeper affection for the girl who was his fan, shy even then, as he takes a hesitant forward step into a forbidden relationship with her. This is a strong performance of a character with character, with honesty and with ambitions that would never allow him to take advantage of someone as weak as Laura.
The director, Roger Danforth, has taken his actors down less-trodden pathways into the minds and hearts of these people. He has been mostly successful on this journey and the play shows its strengths and diminishes its weaknesses. Sherry Recinella's costumes work well for each character and Amanda's party dress is much nicer and much more "right" than most I have seen in other productions. Melissa Mizell's lighting is effective and well played. Andrea Nice's scenic design works for the production which has odd limitations that sometimes leave lines of verbal description in a hard to handle place if you don't know the play. Darcy May has choreographed a wonderful dance sequence that aids the romance.
It is hard to say "Go" to a play that has been seen so often, but I do say it about this one. There are things here that you won't see often and you should see. Decker has never been better and she's been great before. The rest of the cast bring remarkable talents to the stage. This Menagerie is much more human than it is glass, much less transparent than transluscent. See what makes Williams' people, and Williams himself,◊◊ tick.
The Glass Menagerie plays at Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main Street, Cambridge, NY through May 7, 2017. For information and tickets call 518-677-2495 or go on line at www.hubbardhall.org.