October 28, 2008

Steppenwolf's casting confuses Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie is a play about pain: the pain of living in the past and then letting it go, the pain of living with those you love and then leaving them behind. The Steppenwolf production of The Glass Menagerie conveys this feeling of pain, even though it fails to accurately convey the world Tennessee Williams was trying to create.

The Steppenwolf presents a new take on The Glass Menagerie by electing to perform the show with a completely black cast. This interesting choice at times leads to a very awkward relationship between the text and its presentation because much of the play is about the characters' relationship with the Old South. These relationships obviously undergo some fundamental changes when the actors are of different races. For instance, it is hard to believe that Amanda is a Southern belle being courted by the most prestigious and powerful men in the segregated South when the actress in her role is black. The choice to change the race of the characters was difficult to reconcile with the plot and the script of the play, since many moments depended upon characters praising the South's past, and often this sentiment was hard to swallow coming from an all-black cast.

Because The Glass Menagerie is a memory play, altering Williams's memories in any way seems to taint his message that some memories are sacred and will never die. This is a play that describes the ability of memories to influence even those who are trying to forget them. This theme has historical relevance because the memory of the Old South is a powerful and troubling one for America.

Yet there are some moments when the choice to change the race of the characters is very poignant, such as when Tom says he yearns for a better future. These moments, in context, remind one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. When the characters discuss the obstacles to reaching their dreams, the racial choice in casting seems to show not Williams's own experience, but rather part of America's larger historical experience of racial discrimination and unequal opportunity. Perhaps this is what Hallie Gordon, the play's artistic director, meant when she said that she wished to "take this opportunity to reexamine the American Dream."

But this production could have engaged the "American Dream" question even if Director Yasen Peyankov had made a different casting decision. As written, Williams's play presents a rather pessimistic vision of the American Dream, since it depicts characters that are trying hard and just getting by. Williams presents us with a family who cannot deal with the financial strain of the Great Depression. This picture is an interesting one to look at now, since some modern-day politicians have recently compared our current financial problems to the Great Depression.

Although this production was not perfect, the actors' performances were extremely impressive and at times, absolutely lovely. Shanesia Davis successfully accomplished the hard task of conveying a difficult and yet likeable character: a mother who loves her children with all her heart even as she makes them miserable. Davis's monologue at the end of the play was powerful and was one of the two times that I cried during the play. The other moment was during a fantastic rendition of the Gentleman Caller's visit. The Gentleman Caller (Anthony Fleming) eloquently conveyed his compassion and understanding, and on hearing his speech, Laura (Nambi Kelley) is so overcome she trembles. Although at one point, Tom (James T. Alfred) clearly forgot his lines in the middle of a monologue, for the most part he excelled during moments when he got to rant or when he got to be sarcastic and funny. Alfred effectively showed both Tom's frustration with and his love for his family, and that in itself is a feat worth witnessing.