As World War II waned in both theaters, up-and-coming playwright Tennessee Williams premiered what would become his first major work, in Chicago. A self-described “memory play” set in late Depression-era St. Louis, “The Glass Menagerie” launched Williams’ career, which would eventually establish him as one of the 20th century’s most important American authors.
Several fine stagings of “Menagerie” have appeared in Baltimore through the years – perhaps most notably the 1994 production of AXIS Theatre’s first season, directed by Brian Klaas. 25 years later, it’s time to add another highlight to the list: the current production by Theatre Morgan, running for only two weekends, is as powerful a telling of this story as we’ve ever seen.
Go see Theatre Morgan’s ‘The Glass Menagerie’ while you can.
The Wingfield family – mother Amanda, daughter Laura, son Tom, and a long-absent father represented only by a grinning portrait on the wall – try their best to eke out a semblance of life while squeezed together in a small apartment. Each of the four has made or will make, lonely, personal choices for individual survival. Amanda is a long-faded southern belle who fills her family’s space and attention with tales of past glory and lifelong regret. Laura is a 24-year-old woman whose minor infirmity is not the only reason for her pathological shyness.
Tom, 22, is Williams’ autobiographical figure. Throughout the play, he serves as narrator and speaks with the playwright’s own voice. In the second act, we meet The Gentleman Caller, who is (in the playwright’s words) “an emissary from a world of reality that [the Wingfields] were somehow set apart from”. His appearance propels the story to its inevitable, merciless conclusion.
For this staging Director Reggie Phoenix has assembled a wonderful cast and employs a minimalist production style which allows each of his actors to shine very brightly indeed. Scenic Design by Phoenix and John-Robert Schroyer eschews walls; the cramped quarters of the Wingfields’ apartment are left to freestanding arches, a flown window, and the (empty here) portrait of Dad. In these surroundings, it is the actors who give us the feeling of oppressive closeness, and they do.
As the Wingfield matriarch, Marla S. McKinney Smiley is wonderfully powerful. Many actors portray Amanda with a loud, hurried desperation, but McKinney gives her real strength. Her constant admonishment of her children provide most of the comedy in the play, and there’s very good work there too, but her unrelenting positivity also has an anger to it. James Gallmon’s Tom is dangerously close to the edge for most of the play. As his character’s deep frustration threatens to overwhelm him Gallmon performs an expert high-wire act.
Whitley Cargill plays Laura as frightened and achingly small as possible, but in a way that keeps us from pitying her; instead, she manages to touch that outcast part of all of us, and we root for her. The Gentleman Caller – portrayed with deft subtlety by Daymon Gray – gives Laura and the audience a sense of hope for happy endings all around. Do things work out that way? Well, suffice it to say that this is a play by Tennessee Williams; ’nuff said.
James LaDow’s lovely use of sound includes the classic “hidden speaker trick” which brings an old Victrola to life and allows us to hear the so-close-yet-so-far joy from the dance hall across the street. Lighting by Christopher Crostic is equally impressive, given the playwright’s imposition that the play be “dimly lighted,” delivering both a feeling of crowdedness and a sense of furtive intimacy illuminated only by candles and “a little silver slipper of a moon”. Costume Designer Sharlene Clinton provides mostly period-accurate work here, with a quick-change reveal of Amanda’s retooled debutante gown that brings down the house, and a perfect use of blue flower print in Laura’s dress.
Go see Theatre Morgan’s “The Glass Menagerie” while you can.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission.
Advisory: none, recommended for all audiences.
“The Glass Menagerie” plays through October 5 in the Turpin-Lamb Theatre, Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University; 2201 Argonne Drive, Baltimore. For tickets call (443) 885-4440 or purchase online.