Thursday, April 20, 2017

World Lit By Lightning: GCT's Glass Menagerie Has Flashes of Brilliance

Posted By on Thu, Apr 20, 2017 at 11:20 AM

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Is there anything more depressing than watching a great, beautifully acted play that, for whatever reasons, audiences have chosen to avoid like it was a rat-faced hobo yelling at traffic? The crowd that turned out for last Saturday’s showing of The Glass Menagerie was bigger than the cast, but slim enough that Germantown Community Theatre’s converted one room schoolhouse — one of the region’s most intimate play-spaces — felt cavernous, and lonely. Written in the 40’s, Menagerie is a little long in the tooth, but the script’s gathered little dust. It remains remarkable, and relatable to any working stiff who’s ever felt trapped by obligations, and entombed in a dead end job, with nothing but fantasy get by on. With director John Maness at the helm, and a strong ensemble cast, GCT’s take on the Tennessee Williams’ classic is a minor key study in subtlety and restraint. Like Violet, the last fine show I watched at a virtually empty GCT, it fills the tiny playhouse, without ever feeling crowded, or forced.

I’m not going to rehash the story here. The tragedy of the faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield, her missing husband, and her poor, disappointed, and disabled children Tom and Laura, is one of the few modern plays that still seems to creep into school curriculum. And plot's almost beside the point in this tone poem, anyway.

The best Toms flash with pent up anger, and the sense that it’s taking every ounce of will to keep from ghosting on mom and sis, and tripping the light fantastic out of town. Obligation is only part of what keeps him living at home, the 1930’s were an economic wasteland, and dependence also plays its part. As the son of an absent father — the telephone man who fell in love with long distances — Kevar Lane Maffit feels more woefully resigned, and almost gleeful when he’s messing with his prattling mother’s head.  He shines in little, quieter moments shared with his castmates. As the play’s narrator, Tom is often literally set outside the story. This performance finds Tom simultaneously looking for a way to blow out of town while also looking for cracks in time, space, and his mother’s fantastic bubble, trying to find, or fight his way back in. It’s a performance that never feels extraordinary, but becomes just that.

Maffit’s brooding presence is balanced by Kristen Vandervort's skittish Laura, whose low self esteem manifests as a kind of social shellshock. The nervousness makes sense, given her inability to escape her bombshell mother’s blast radius.

With her mannered manners, and sweeping stories of gentleman callers, and old South courtship, it’s easy to imagine Amanda as the Lost Cause-myth incarnate — a grand, self-deluding fabulist whose obsession with a perfect past (that never was), and faded promise (that has) walks an ever finer line between merciful escape, and psychotic break. There can be no doubt that, while she may have driven them away as quickly, Christina Wellford Scott’s Amanda most definitely turned heads. Still could, were she not so humbled, and forced to sell her romance magazines over the phone — penned by an author who never lets you down. Scott’s surprising Amanda shows us what a more grounded Blanche DuBois might have looked like, had children given her purpose, and something to project her fantasies onto. When Amanda flirts with Jim, Laura’s “gentleman caller,” it’s usually grotesque. This go-round she’s an elegant cougar, and sexually, a little threatening.

Scott, with stylistic help of Maness, transforms Amanda into the kind of romantic illusion one usually only finds in the movies — twisted by time and changing sensibilities, into something ridiculous. It’s so easy to just make her overbearing and bonkers.

The Gentleman Caller’s a tough gig. He represents hope, and hope’s a little bit of jerk, especially when nobody’s paid the light bill. Hey, maybe a kiss from a guy with executive potential really can fix a broken girl’s low self-esteem! (sigh) We know this date’s going nowhere. But when Jared Graham’s Jim’s dances Laura around the room, we want to believe, at least in the moment, that something completely unexpected could happen.

Williams dropped his Wingfield family between an economic rock and an even harder world “lit by lightning.” The World Wars are alluded to so often it’s fair to describe the play’s imaginative setting as a battlefield, occupied by ghosts and refugees. This imagery hasn’t been lost on GCT’s creative team, who’ve reduced portions of the family’s St. Louis apartment to rubble.

Hopefully word of mouth will result in fuller houses going forward. A show this good deserves an audience.

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