February 4, 2005

Authenticity and fragility pervade Hypocrites' production of Williams classic

The Athenaeum Theater's Studio 2 provided an appropriately delicate setting for the Hypocrites' production of Tennessee Williams's tension-wrought drama, The Glass Menagerie. The set adequately fit the small black box studio and Williams's intricate description. Yet the production crew seemed to feel no restraint at all, using an eloquently projected backdrop to highlight key lines. The crew also offered an interesting piece by e.e. cummings as a prelude to Part II.

By using the playwright's original stage directions, the company was able to give the audience perspective on the author's intentions. Down to the Lucky Strikes smoked on stage, the production had an air of authenticity that was more than adequate to recreate both '40s St. Louis and a class inextricably stuck in their best and worse years.

Donna McGouh instantly captures Williams's overbearing mother figure, Amanda Wingfield. The snide exchanges between her and her son Tom (a wonderful Robert McLean) garnered a number of laughs from the audience, wholly unexpected during a tense tragedy like this. As the play progressed, however, the audience realized that perhaps Tom's constantly shaky voice, Amanda's seething Southern charm, and Laura's fragile psyche are not caricatures.

McLean's Tom constructs an air of instability through his poetic asides and constant aspirations to leave his family as his father left him. The company avoids overdoing the noir-like air of Tom's fire escape diatribes or the deceptively shallow appearance of Amanda. The Hypocrites also delicately handle the overarching metaphor that is the play's namesake. The difficulty of this play can be finding the most articulate balance between this pervasive metaphor and the actual happenings of the play. The Hypocrites deftly maneuver around this obstacle by drawing physical attention away from the menagerie itself with the projected images on the wall of the set. The audience can't help but take in the entirety of the set.

Part of the reason this sort of technical trickery doesn't bog down the play is a result of the actors' strong identification with their roles. Each character becomes singularly representative of a mood of the time, as well as a personal relationship to the dysfunctional, ultimately disastrous family structure. Each character's voice, save for Michelle Moe's extraordinary Laura, remains exactly the same. Amanda remains hysterical, Tom remains agitated, and Jim O'Connor (Steve Wilson) remains a caricature of salesmanship psychology. All this helps highlight the ultimate tragedy of the time period and accentuate the fragility of Laura's psyche.

In the end, this production—running Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through March—stands out as a truly affecting production of a timeless play. It evokes emotions and sentiments that in some ways have been forgotten in this society (and almost certainly in modern drama), and others that are simply buried within every dysfunctional relationship we have.

Tennessee Williams described The Glass Menagerie best as a "memory play" in two fashions; a play in which Tom remembers his own past and his own tragic situation, and a play which evokes a sense of memory, both good and bad, from the audience. The audience remembers tension within their own families and a want of adventure, and the characters remember their better days—but most importantly, in this Hypocrites production in Athenaeum Theater's Studio 2, everyone remembers.