`Menagerie' focus homes in on Tom

Flashes of freshness brighten Kennedy Center production

TheaterReview

July 23, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

No doubt about it. In the Kennedy Center's production of The Glass Menagerie - the final offering in the "Tennessee Williams Explored" festival - Tom, the narrator, emerges as the central character.

True, Williams considered the mother to be the protagonist in his semi-autobiographical memory play. And, judging from the title - which refers to Tom's sister Laura, who collects glass animals - you might assume that Laura was the main character.

But in Gregory Mosher's stunningly directed production, the play belongs to Williams' alter ego, Tom. Of course, to some extent this is always the case because the action consists of Tom's recollections. At the Kennedy Center, however, Jason Butler Harner's beautifully detailed depiction of Tom swings the emphasis of the drama unequivocally in his direction.

From his opening monologue, Harner makes the play his - a portrait of a young artist wrestling with a desperate need for freedom. Slowly lighting a cigarette while he holds forth from the fire escape, Harner immediately imbues Tom with sensitivity, warmth, intelligence and humor as he delivers Williams' poetic lines with a soft Southern accent slightly reminiscent of the playwright's own.

Humor may not be a trait generally associated with this bittersweet tale of a mother and her two grown children who fitfully cohabit a St. Louis tenement apartment. But the way in which Harner and Mosher gently weave touches of comedy into the fabric of the play reminds us of the affection underlying the often embattled Wingfield family and also reinforces the non-naturalistic style that was crucial to Williams' vision.

For example, in his introductory remarks, when Tom explains that "being a memory play ... it is not realistic," he opens the front door to the Wingfield apartment, then deliberately walks around it to enter the living room, a feat that would be impossible in a realistic space.

Trapped inside the apartment are Tom's mother, Amanda, and sister Laura. Wearing a careworn expression and a brown wig of tight waves, Sally Field is almost unrecognizable as Amanda. Although the actress' initial scenes lack energy, she gains vitality when Amanda plunges into the "plans and provisions" necessary to entertain the Gentleman Caller (portrayed by an adequate, but uninspired Corey Brill) whom she badgers Tom to bring home for his handicapped sister. By the time she displays her Southern hospitality to the visitor, Field's Amanda is once again the popular Southern debutante she was in her youth.

However, the actress' best scene - and one that indicates Field possesses the depth this complex character needs throughout - comes after a virulent argument with Tom. Attempting to overcome her distress, Field's Amanda displays heartwrenching determination as she launches into the forced cheerfulness necessary to sell magazine subscriptions over the phone, a job she has taken to supplement the family's meager income.

Many directors downplay Laura's physical handicap on stage, but Mosher has Jennifer Dundas wear a heavy metal brace on one leg. Not only does the cumbersome brace give validity to this shy girl's feelings of awkwardness, but Dundas plays Laura as a mousy young woman far more capable of cowering than standing up for herself.

Furthermore, the way in which both Harner's Tom and Brill's Gentleman Caller tower over Amanda and Laura makes the women seem like diminutive china dolls - a pair of ornaments that complement Laura's fragile glass collection.

The flashes of freshness in Mosher's production are enhanced by John Lee Beatty's set design (which surrounds the Wingfields' claustrophobic apartment with immense signs from the movie theaters and dance hall that lure Tom into the outside world) and particularly by Aaron Copp's magical lighting design.

Only one element is at times jarring. Building on a suggestion in the playwright's stage directions, Mosher and his designers occasionally employ a series of projections, which replace the large portrait of Amanda's long-absent husband. Seeing images of Amanda's past beaus may be fairly evocative, but when Mr. Wingfield's portrait winks, the effect is just plain corny.

In a broader sense, however, Mosher's Menagerie, like the other two major productions in the "Tennessee Williams Explored" festival, is solid but lacking in the type of overall interpretive innovation that characterized several of the productions in the Kennedy Center's previous festival, the 2002 "Sondheim Celebration."

The Williams festival has showcased some exceptional performances - most notably George Grizzard's Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and now, Harner's Tom in Glass Menagerie. And the productions have certainly reinforced the greatness of these three American classics. Yet if one of the tests of a masterpiece is its ability to be reinterpreted, it's regrettable that greater risks were not taken in this high-profile event.

Theater

What: The Glass Menagerie

Where: Virginia and New Hampshire avenues, N.W., Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Aug. 8

Tickets: $25-$75

Call: 800-444-1324

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