A Misconceived MENAGERIE

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Joe Jalette and Vanessa Strickland

A Misconceived Menagerie at Maryland Ensemble Theatre

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com on February 18, 2013

The Glass Menagerie (1944) was not Tennessee Williams‘ first play but it was his Broadway debut, the play that made him a household name. And like many debut plays, it was especially bound up with and sourced in its author’s own life and family history. The central character, Tom Wingfield, is unmistakably an alter ego of Williams himself (who bore the similar-sounding name of Tom Williams before adopting the soubriquet of Tennessee in his twenties).You cannot play young Mr. Wingfield without bearing this fact in mind. Yet that seems to be what director Peter Wray and actor Matt Lee seem intent on doing in their off-center interpretation of The Glass Menagerie, now playing at Frederick’s Maryland Ensemble Theatre (the MET).

The Tom they give us is snarky, snotty and petulant. His line deliveries drip sarcasm, evidencing little or no sympathy for his crippled and neurasthenic sister Laura (Vanessa Strickland) or for Amanda, his economically struggling faded Southern belle mother (Julie Herber). This Tom, addressing the audience from 1944 and looking back approximately seven years, both in what he says and in his manner of saying it, assigns Amanda, Laura and his absent father 100% of the blame for Tom’s having taken up a rootless, wandering life.

Yet, as critic after critic has noted, the unidentified elephant in the room is Tennessee’s/Tom’s homosexuality and his inability to come out to his family. It would be no fair for Tom to suggest that his anger and flight are solely in response to family dysfunction. Inability to live a gay life within the family’s purview is clearly a major contributing factor. And when Tom is played with such sneering contempt for the family, there is no conclusion to draw but that Tom vests them with total responsibility for his alienation. Which makes Tom dishonest about himself and diminishes him in our eyes.

Admittedly, Williams put this flaw in the play himself: Tom finds it impossible to come out of the closet not only when talking to his family, but also when addressing the audience directly, as he does from time to time. Admittedly also, the reading in which Tom’s flight is solely from family dysfunction is sustainable on the bare text of the play. Sustainable, yes, but also absurd. Questions are raised for which there is only one plausible answer. There are the not credible explanation for his nightly departures from the household (the movies every night!), the absence of any reference to Tom’s love life, and the dialogue with his mother in which he nearly tips his hand: “You say there’s so much in your heart that you can’t describe to me. That’s true of me, too. There’s so much in my heart that I can’t describe to you!” True, the conclusion that Tom is gay, closeted, and alienated thereby from his family is not absolutely compelled. The failure of the script to “go there” arguably leaves room for actors and directors to interpret.

But any other conclusion than that Tom Wingfield, like Tom Williams, is gay would be misinterpretation. And it is a misinterpretation with consequences. If there is nothing in Tom that contributes to his alienation, then: a) that alienation must all stem from problems with his mother and sister (and absent father), and b) a snarky approach to family apparently becomes both morally justified (from the character’s point of view) and a good way of performing the character’s take on his family (from the actor’s).

But it isn’t. Every other interpretation of this well-worn role that I have ever seen gets this part right: Tom is always played to show tenderness and solicitude at times to his mother and sister, and a fundamental understanding of their plight, even as he chafes at their dysfunction and lashes out at them. There is meant to be a thoughtfulness, a sympathy to the lines in which he delivers his critique of them, not just spite laced with some pro forma guilt. When, at the end, he says he is haunted by his sister even in his flight, this is not just about being unable to spit a bad taste out of his mouth. Yet Matt Lee‘s Tom gives just that impression.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast seems to have been better directed. I especially liked the long second act pas-de-deux (pictured above) between Stringfield’s Laura and Joe Jalette’s Jim (aka the Gentleman Caller) (if only because it gets the misconceived Tom offstage for a while). Jalette credibly brings to life the kind of man who could have been an emotionally and physically crippled girl’s silent high school crush, now returned and willing, for just a moment, and without much malice, to reconnect and flirt a little. Williams wrote Laura a little surrealistically (her kind of actual swooning, for instance, had really gone out before 1937 along with the corsets that had caused it), and we do not look for precise realism in her portrayal. But whatever stricken mousiness she evinces to begin with, during that flirtation she must light up from within, and then suddenly wilt into despair when it ends. Strickland nails both the incandescence and the despair.

Julie Herber does everything right as Amanda the faded belle, more lately a controlling maternal nag who nevertheless looks (for a while) very near success in her efforts to right the capsizing family ship. Herber has the Southern accent and the annoying nagging down. What she lacks is not her fault; it takes a certain commanding presence, and a mature echo of dazzling youthful good looks to make us believe that in her salad days the character could have had seventeen gentlemen callers in one day. Even if that kind of glory was, to Williams’ way of thinking, superficial and a little bit coarse, Williams, here and elsewhere, acknowledges its power, as he acknowledges the power of rare sexual magnetism. It has to be there, even if Amanda is exaggerating for effect. Herber creditably does all the script calls for, but looks more a Medea than an Amanda.

MET is an interesting company that does novel and interesting things, and is a cultural anchor in the vibrant heart of Frederick, and I have enjoyed my visits there. But it must be said that this largely misdirected and miscast show is not MET’s finest hour.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for graphic

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