The Glass Menagerie (The Human Race Theatre Company – Dayton, OH)

 
There’s never any guarantee that your children will end up being anything like you; that’s the lesson Amanda Wingfield just can’t wrap her head around (much to her chagrin) in Tennessee Williams’ classic, The Glass Menagerie, currently being presented in quite a fine production by The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton. 

The great Tennessee Williams had his first success when The Glass Menagerie premiered in Chicago in 1944, landing on Broadway in 1945 and running nearly a year and a half in an era when a hit play meant a run of only half as long. It has been revived on Broadway six times to date (once a decade since the 1960s), adapted for film in 1950 and 1987, and was produced for television starring the great Katharine Hepburn in 1973; still, this is a piece that works best live.

 

Photo: Scott J. Kimmins – (left to right) Jennifer Joplin (Amanda), Scott Hunt (Tom), and Claire Kennedy (Laura)
 

The Glass Menagerie takes place in a Chicago tenement circa the 1940s and is about Amanda Wingfield, a former Southern belle living with her two adult children: Tom, a restless warehouse worker who wants to leave for the navy; and Laura, a powerfully shy introvert with an emotionally crippling limp. Amanda talks of the days when she entertained seventeen gentlemen callers all at once, and by all accounts she was as popular in her heyday as her offspring now are not. Knowing that her days of having Tom be the breadwinner for the family are limited, Amanda sets her sights on Laura, plotting to have her marry well; but poor Laura is so withdrawn and meek that she grows ill at the thought of speaking to someone outside of her family, and she has no friends, let alone any prospects for a husband. None of that deters Amanda though as she pressures Tom to bring home his buddy Jim from the warehouse to be a “gentleman caller” for his sister, forcing Laura to face the prospect of having to entertain him alone when her usual hobbies include such solitary pastimes as playing with her collection of glass animals and listening to old records.

 

Photo: Scott J. Kimmins – (left to right) Jennifer Joplin (Amanda) and Drew Vidal (Jim)
 
Amanda Wingfield is one of those powerhouse roles that actresses have to earn the privilege to play; any production of The Glass Menagerie is only as good as its Amanda. Thankfully, Jennifer Joplin is on hand to be stern, charming, manipulative, pushy – you name it, and Ms. Joplin can do it. Scott Hunt is her son, Tom, playing the part with an edge that makes it hard for me to believe that he would put up with Amanda’s shenanigans; still, Mr. Hunt’s quiet moments with Laura, played by Claire Kennedy, are heartfelt and caring, as they both seem to be victims of their mother’s stifling persona.

 

Photo: Scott J. Kimmins – (left to right) Scott Hunt (Tom), Jennifer Joplin (Amanda), Claire Kennedy (Laura), and Drew Vidal (Jim)
 
As Laura, Ms. Kennedy reacts like a taunted and tortured animal, too afraid to confront her mother (or anyone for that matter) but also too timid to run away. It would take someone as magnanimous and handsome as Jim, played winningly by Drew Vidal, to reach Laura where she is; and that Mr. Vidal does, almost too good to be true and completely accepting of Laura’s handicaps. Their chemistry only makes the denouement that much more heart-wrenching and effective.

 

Photo: Scott J. Kimmins – (left to right) Drew Vidal (Jim) and Claire Kennedy (Laura)
 
The Glass Menagerie is one of those seminal works for which there will always be a place in modern theatre, and Greg Hellems’ direction thankfully shies away from too being delicate and precious, a criticism I often have when I see subpar productions of Williams’ work. No moment is wasted in this staging, but it also doesn’t feel rushed. Eric Barker’s set looks suitably antique in appearance with lace and embroidered seat coverings evoking The South to which Amanda refers so fondly; there are even thick navy velvet curtains framing the living room of the Wingfield apartment that look as if Scarlet O’Hara might at any moment appear to make a gown out of them. The set is on a platform that reveals a steady collection of odds and ends scattered about beneath it, like playthings from a forgotten childhood. John Rensel’s lighting casts a slight pink glow over the proceedings, as if we are all looking at the past through rose-colored glasses, and Laura’s glass collection glows with green light as if illuminated from within, looking as magical to us as it surely does to Laura.

 

Photo: Scott J. Kimmins – Claire Kennedy (Laura)
 
Any person who has had a rather domineering mother (most of us, I’m sure) can relate to how Amanda’s children feel in this play, and it’s that feeling of not wanting to disappoint but also not being able to rise up to meet expectations that rings true. The scenes where Amanda prods at Laura are uncomfortable, like witnessing someone harshly disciplining their child on the playground knowing full well that there is a better way to handle the situation. Seeing how Laura begins to come out of her shell when Jim breaks through is as touching as the realization that the moment is short-lived is devastating; all of the build-up to the gentleman caller’s visit brought to my mind poor Carrie White from Brian De Palma’s film of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976), waiting to attend the prom only to have it turn out to be a disaster.

The one element of this production that proves to be distracting is the music by Jay Brunner that bridges scenes; it is discordant, sounding as if two unrelated compositions are being played on top of each other, and it sounds highly unnatural and out-of-place. Any tension created by Ms. Joplin is shattered every time a new cue starts, though I’m sure there is some well-intentioned meaning behind using such music; it’s lost on me though, as it sounded more like musicians warming up than actual music.

The Glass Menagerie is heartbreaking, and The Human Race Theatre Company does right by the material with some really special performances and a striking set. It’s unfortunate that a professional production like this is saddled with such inappropriate music at scene breaks, but even that isn’t enough to derail this otherwise admirable effort. See this one even if you’ve seen it before; they just don’t write and perform them like they used to, but this is the rare production that is the exception to the rule.

*** 1/2 out of ****

The Glass Menagerie continues through to February 21st in The Loft Theatre at 126 North Main Street in downtown Dayton (just over an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://humanracetheatre.org/1516/glass-menagerie/index.php

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Steel Magnolias (The Human Race Theatre Company – Dayton, OH)

 
There will always be a place for Steel Magnolias as long as there are actresses who want to perform as part of a strong all-female ensemble. Since premiering off-Broadway in 1987, it has been transformed into a hit 1989 film starring Julia Roberts and Sally Field, played Broadway in 2005 with Delta Burke, and been performed countless times for nearly thirty years all across the country. There are six productions (!) over the course of one month within 60 miles of Columbus alone, though The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton is the only professional theatre company performing Steel Magnolias this fall in Ohio.

 

Photo: Scott J. Kimmins – (left to right) Carolyn Popp, Maretta Zilic, Julia Geisler, Christine Brunner and Patricia Linhart
 
Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias after losing his beloved sister to diabetes. He set the play in Truvy’s Beauty Shop in the fictional city of Chinquapin, Louisiana, in the late 1980s. Six women discuss their lives and loves all while either getting their hair done or doing hair. The play begins on the day M’Lynn’s daughter Shelby is to be wed, and it covers the next few years in their lives as Shelby suffers with her diabetes and the women bond over trying to see her through it. There is Truvy, the owner of the beauty shop; Annelle, her newly hired assistant; Clairee, a football-loving widow; and there is Ouiser, a grouchy neighbor who runs everyone the wrong way.

 

Photo: Scott J. Kimmins – (left to right) Carolyn Popp, Christine Brunner, Caitlin Larsen, Julia Geisler, Patricia Lindart and Maretta Zilic
 
It’s nice that the actors in this production aren’t trying to copy the performances in the popular 1989 film adaptation. There are many different ways to plays these parts, and the film is by no means definitive as far as I’m concerned (though I know every scene and line by heart). It’s refreshing to see Caitlin Larsen’s Ouiser even though I also enjoy Shirley MacLaine’s rather one-note performance. Ms. Larsen allows Ouiser to mellow and grow throughout, as even her clothing and tone reflect how having her old beau Owen back in her life (all because of Shelby) has changed her for the better. This Ouiser is still a pistol, but she’s a person too because of what Ms. Larsen brings to the table. Patricia Linhart as Clairee and Julia Geisler as Shelby are two other standouts in the cast, offering a bit more sass in those parts when compared with the film.

 

Photo: Scott J. Kimmins – (left to right) Christine Brunner, Caitlin Larsen, Maretta Zilic, Julia Geisler and Patricia Linhart
 
The only performance I find disappointing is by Christine Brunner as Truvy. Ms. Brunner stays close to the surface and appears to be listening for her cues more than listening to her cast mates. When Shelby announces that she’s pregnant, Ms. Brunner reacts before anyone else, so quickly that it didn’t seem like Ms. Geisler had even completed her line! She appears more concerned with getting her accent right and being consistent with it than offering much in the way of feeling. Some of Truvy’s best lines fall flat because of it.

 

Photo: Scott J. Kimmins
 
The set by Eric Moore is inspired and appears ready for business. The plumbing and appliances all work, and the kitchen off to the side (only visible to half of the audience) has a fridge and sink as well! Back issues of magazines, pastel patterned furniture, and beauty parlor equipment are all in evidence; so realistic is the set that it’s doubly odd that the backdrop outside the window and door are blank, ruining the illusion. The second scene in the first act takes place in darkness as a fuse has been blown and Truvy and Annelle are off futzing with the circuit breaker – yet a lamp and string of Christmas lights off to the right are still illuminated. These flaws stick out mainly because of how well handled the set and utilities are otherwise; they are unfortunate issues with an otherwise very impressive set and lighting design.

I should divulge that this is the second production of Steel Magnolias that I’ve seen in as many weeks, the first being the King Avenue Players production in Columbus. Though that production was pretty iffy with a cast of variable ability (I preferred their Truvy and M’Lynn though), I must admit that I teared up at the conclusion. I didn’t have the same reaction this time, though I’m not sure if it is the fault of the production, the acting, or my having seen it two weeks earlier. I suspect it is the latter, as so much of this production is strong and enjoyably familiar.

*** out of ****

Steel Magnolias continues through to November 29th in The Loft Theatre at 126 North Main Street in downtown Dayton (just over an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://humanracetheatre.org/1516/steel-magnolias/index.php