Quirky 'Menagerie'

Theater Review

Cast Carries The Show In Aacc's Staging Of The Tennessee Williams Mainstay Marked By Odd Choices In Set Design, Musical Accompaniment

April 26, 2009|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Baltimore Sun

The opening night of AACC's Moonlight Troupers' production of The Glass Menagerie drew an audience of 46 at Pascal Center for Performing Arts - smaller than the cast deserved. Theatergoers who chose to skip this early Tennessee Williams work because of its familiarity, having played in the county the past two springs, might have been surprised by this unusual version.

The production was carried by the professionalism of the cast, but the presentation was at times incongruous, if not frustrating, because of the unusual musical selections and set design.

In the story, Williams' surrogate Tom Wingfield relates in his opening monologue and through flashbacks the lives of his mother - Southern belle Amanda, abandoned by her husband years earlier and now largely existing in her genteel past - and his crippled, shy sister Laura, who fills her imaginary world with glass animals.

The play has several autobiographical touches: Tom is a writer who, like Williams, worked in a menial job in a shoe factory. Williams' sister Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia and as represented by Laura has a limp caused by a clubfoot. Amanda, who sells magazine subscriptions to supplement Tom's meager $60-a-month warehouse salary, is patterned on Williams' mother Edwina, a Southerner and DAR member.

Amanda's constant references to gentlemen callers for Laura eventually persuade Tom to invite his shoe factory co-worker Jim O'Connor to their apartment. Self-confident Jim is the most realistic character in the play and seen by Laura as a potential suitor who might rescue her from her lonely existence until she learns he is unable to fill this role.

A major plus in AACC's Menagerie is veteran actress Christy Stouffer's Amanda, alternately charming us and grating on our nerves as she badgers her children, frustrated by her daughter Laura's shyness that causes her to quit business school for which Amanda has paid tuition. Stouffer makes Amanda relevant to contemporary mothers of grown children in her confusion at her son's need to escape reality - in Tom's case through his obsession with the movies. Stouffer's nuanced performance communicates Amanda's frustration, ambition and love for her children, and Stouffer looks the part of a Southern belle.

Neil Smith, a 20-year-old from Calvert County, was listed as an AACC student when he was recently seen in Colonial Players' She Loves Me and last fall played Benny Southstreet in Moonlight Troupers' Guys and Dolls. Here he takes on the demanding role of the play's narrator Tom Wingfield, and he generally succeeds in conveying Tom's frustration and longing to flee the warehouse. Although Tom's opening soliloquy seldom reached poetic heights and often took on a reciting element on opening night, Smith's was a satisfactory delivery that will presumably improve in subsequent performances.

AACC sophomore and theater major Emily Hill plays Laura, conveying her painful shyness and her grasping at the hope of a relationship with her old high school crush Jim O'Connor, who becomes the gentleman caller. She is especially moving in her climactic scene with Jim when she begins to dance with him. The only element missing in the dance scene and elsewhere is any sign of Laura's limp.

As Jim O'Connor, former AACC theater student and Broadneck High School graduate Artur Sanchez delivers a likable, ambitious young man who sees Laura's special beauty and persuades her to value her uniqueness. The tentative first steps of his tender partnering with Laura in their dance scene provides a touching moment. This scene lacked only a suitable, more danceable kind of tune such as "Moonglow" instead of a dirge variation.

In fact, the dirge-like music from the beginning of the production - and throughout - evokes nothing of the 30s golden age of pop music.

Perhaps equally frustrating was having to confront the unusual stage set, which resembled a 1944 bombed-out London flat more than a Depression-era St. Louis apartment. The jagged wall openings, fashioned as a giant incomplete jigsaw puzzle, not only intruded on the scenes, but forced the room furnishings to be pushed close together, leaving little space between the small dining room table and the living room sofa, thus impeding easy movement of actors. The fire escape that is essential in most Menagerie sets is merely indicated here by metal tracks nailed to the floor.

Rob Berry serves as director, light designer and sound designer - this last task with Walt League. The program lists student Jessica Thomas as responsible for scenic design and Arielle Rich for costume design.

Weekend performances continue at AACC's Pascal Center through Sunday, with a Saturday performance at 8 p.m. and a Sunday performance at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 general admission and $12 for senior citizens, students and AACC faculty and staff, and $5 for AACC credit students. Call 410-777-2457 to reserve, or purchase tickets at the door.

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