half-full glass: (l-r) McCasland and Davis in Oldcastle’s
The Glass Menagerie.
Tennessee Williams, directed by Eric Peterson
Oldcastle Theatre Company, Bennington, Vt., through Oct. 12
Deceptively simple, Tennessee Williams’ lovely memory play
The Glass Menagerie is remarkably difficult to produce.
The play exists somewhere between imagination and reality
in a twilight world traveled by poets and dreamers. To pull
it off requires that theater artists be able to work in subtle
pastels with only occasional slashes of charcoal.
autobiographical play is a bittersweet recollection of a short
period of time in 1937 that still haunts the story’s narrator,
Tom Wingfield, a poet who is the playwright’s alter ego. One
of the triumphs of Eric Peterson’s production is that Williams’
persona also shows clearly through the character of Tom’s
shy sister, Laura, whose minor limp has caused her crippling
emotional effects. In too many productions, Laura feels too
much like a poetic device; here she is a poetic soul who,
like Tom, is trapped in the claustrophobic world circumscribed
by her well-meaning mother, Amanda, and by the family’s financial
vicissitudes. Potential escape, dangled carrotlike in front
of this timid unicorn of a girl, arrives in the form of Jim,
a gentleman caller who seems to have read Norman Vincent Peale.
The scene between Laura and Jim, as played by Meredith McCasland
and Shawn J. Davis, is reason enough to see this production.
And even if the show has flaws elsewhere, it is pleasing to
report that matters at Oldcastle have improved greatly since
the summer season.
Aside from the decision to represent a portrait of the absent
Wingfield father (who fell in love with long distance) with
a blank canvas, Kenneth Mooney has designed a set that nicely
suggests the Wingfields’ squalid apartment facing an alley
in St. Louis. Heightened with periodic projections of a jungle
of fire escapes on screens surrounding the acting area, this
is among the best sets I have seen for this play.
Richard Howe seems very assured as Tom, but somehow he misses
the mark and lacks a gentle, contemplative quality to invite
us into his memory. Too hearty, his voice frequently booms
where it should whisper or at least speak in mellow tones.
When he bids a final farewell to Laura, the emotion seems
empty, partly because he never establishes the requisite rapport
with her. This may be due to a proclivity to play key moments
out to the audience as opposed to fellow actors.
Amanda is one of the most challenging maternal roles in world
theater. I think even Medea would be easier than this former
Southern belle who is unintentionally destroying her grown
children. Williams has set a bear trap for even the best actress
heedless of her steps. While Amanda must nag Tom and Laura,
below the oft-repeated harangues there must be depths that
speak of her love, devotion and deathly fear of failure and
abandonment. In the right hands, Amanda can border on tragic.
Decker, however, fairly thunders through the role with such
annoying garrulity that one wants to
garrote her. Nor does she possess the requisite Southern charm
of this magpie. Where Amanda should twitter, or at least chatter,
At least Davis conveys the charm
necessary to make Jim more than a mere opportunist and to
deepen Laura’s loss. The penultimate scene of the play is
a tender pas de deux between the sure-footed Jim and the limping
but painfully limpid Laura, and it is so beautifully played
that you really ought to see the show if you have an abiding
love of Williams and want to feel as well as see and hear
him. The kiss between Jim and Laura is longer than usual and
becomes touching and painful to watch. The following letdown
is exquisitely trenchant.
When Laura hands the broken unicorn from her glass menagerie
to Jim, who has essentially rejected her, she tells him to
take it as a “souvenir.” In that one word, McCasland speaks
volumes of subtext. Not only does she convey the requisite
sadness, regret, pain and loss of hope, but McCasland also
enticingly hints of suppressed anger. Achieved with seeming
minimalism, the effect is revelatory and brilliant.