Haunted Memory: Circle Theatre’s THE GLASS MENAGERIE

Penning a stage review of the eminent play THE GLASS MENAGERIE by Tennessee Williams makes me feel like a humble commoner staring into my modest closet’s thrift store contents after receiving an invitation to an audience with the Queen of England. Overwhelmed. Will I reach inside and draw out anything worthy and credible, up to the occasion, full of warranted gravitas? Or will my words, like weary, pre-worn attire, embody a pitifully threadbare attempt to capture the essence of a work imbued with surreal genius and soul-searching humanity? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. 

Give it a go.

THE GLASS MENAGERIE launched Tennessee Williams’ career as a playwright when it opened on Broadway in 1945, after a trial run in Chicago. Deemed a “memory play” for its autobiographical characters, it won the New York Drama Critics’Circle Award in 1945. Its tortured portrayal of a a former privileged Southern belle’s obsessive struggles to elevate the lives of her disabled, reclusive daughter and troubled, rebellious son beyond a degrading existence in a shabby St. Louis tenement has fired the imagination and empathy of audiences worldwide. The family trio inspired by Williams’ mother, sister and himself has fleshed out the bios of some of our nation’s finest stage and screen artists over the years, including: Maureen Stapleton, Anne Pitoniak, Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris, Jessica Lange, Cherry Jones, Sally Field, Brenda Blethyn, Calista Flockhart, Piper Laurie, Rip Torn, Linus Roache, Hal Holbrook, Kiefer Sutherland, Christian Slater and Zachary Quinto. It is slated for new production in 2022 at the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End, starring Amy Adams, Paul Hilton, Tom Glyn-Carney, Lizzie Annis and Victor Alli. The play’s national and international awards are legion. It has inspired at least four film versions and numerous film adaptations. In 1987, Paul Newman helmed a film production that was his final directorial effort before passing away. If a play could earn a title of royalty, THE GLASS MENAGERIE bears that assignation.

Circle Theatre’s production, running through November 20, 2021, at its downtown Fort Worth venue, honors the play with trenchant lyricism and fluid dignity. The below street level house with its tiny thrust stage shrouded in shadows reinforces the play’s emotional intimacy and the surreal interplay between fantasy and reality Williams’ words and characters evoke. Is this play a daydream or a nightmare? If so, whose mind ushers it forth?Ably directed by Natalie King, this production allows its audience to draw its own conclusions without forcing a perspective or mimicking former incarnations.

Regional definitive leading lady and cultural arts ambassador Denise Lee brings her multi-dimensional skills and oceanic depth of talent to bear in creating – owning – the role of downtrodden but not crushed matriarch Amanda. What a satisfying delight to watch this powerhouse actor imbue her archetypal role with signature brilliance. Amanda presents a whirlwind of contradictions, from narcissistic and overbearing to deeply dedicated and nurturing to girlishly flirtatious. One aspect flows seamlessly into another through Lee’s bold mastery, creating a catalytic portrayal that drives the two-act play forward like a bullet train. Her transcendent Act Two entrance, with commanding Southern coquette demeanor and complimentary attire, drew loud gasps of appreciation from the rapt house opening night. It’s a gifted “entrance” this critic will recall with delight after years pass. Renowned actor, director and educational innovator Viola Spolin commented, “…it is in the increasing of the individual capacity for experiencing that the untold potentiality of a personality can be evoked.” Lee experiences Amanda in vibrant reality, never falling into a limiting trap of stereotypical “demon mother” as the character is often portrayed. She explores the full, human potential of her complex character. It’s heart-wrenching to watch her embrace her inconsolable daughter Laura at play’s end with saintly tenderness. Denise Lee’s performance is a classic study in superb character development/realization. I hope many high school and college students, aspiring thespians or not, take advantage of the affordable student ticket pricing at Circle Theatre to witness Lee’s work. They will see a regional landmark performance of one of American theatre’s most celebrated female leads in one of the American theatre’s finest stage plays. 

The other three members of the cast balance Lee’s performance with notable realizations of their own. Ana Hagedorn, lately of Dallas Theater Center’s Brierley Resident Acting Company, follows a delicate arc of wistfulness and despair, full of icy reticence. It bends her towards total mental and emotional disintegration that keeps her focused on her “menagerie of glass”. The collection seems more alive and real to her than the humans she must interact with. Laura finds the reality of life too painful to accept. As the much anticipated “Gentleman Caller” Jim, professional actor and teaching artist Tommy Stuart (BFA, University of Oklahoma) lights up the stage with determined bravado and good cheer in Act Two. He provides a welcome brightness to the darkness dominating the lives of the play’s other characters. Recent SMU BFA graduate Savier Losornio approaches the multi-faceted role of Laura’s brother Tom, the play’s narrator as well as major scene participant, from a filmic naturalism perspective. Sometimes his cool realistic delivery and demeanor, as well as contemporary costuming, inhibit his character from integrating fully into the poetic ensemble sense of the work. Perhaps this was director King’s intent, to keep Tom disengaged from the fantasies he enlivens from memory, even when he joins in the action. Tennessee Williams’ genius lets him portray life enmeshed with fantasies and realities like the haunted flickering light of Laura’s candles on her glass figurines, never escaped no matter how hard one tries.

Scenic design by Bob Lavallee, lighting by Kat Farenthold, costumes by Ryan Matthieu Smith, sound by Brian McDonald and projections byAdam Chamberlin foster the play’s vibrant dreamworld and allow Circle Theatre’s cast a worthy landscape on which to create poignant memories for the production’s audiences.

www.circletheatre.com

230 West 4th Street, Fort Worth, Texas 76102

817-877-3040

Active COVID protocols in place

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