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A half-full glass: (l-r) McCasland and Davis in Oldcastle’s The Glass Menagerie.

Heart of Tennessee
By Ralph Hammann

The Glass Menagerie
By 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.

The 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, Decker squawks.

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.



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