Review: A Gothic-Tinged "Glass Menagerie"

The Glass Menagerie

Written by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Austin Pendleton and Peter Bloch

Presented by Ruth Stage at the wild project

195 E. 3rd St., Manhattan, NYC

October 3-20, 2019

Spencer Scott and Alexandra Rose. Photo courtesy of Alana Silber
Although Tennessee Williams's heavily autobiographical The Glass Menagerie is set in St. Louis, its concern with memory, the past, and inherited familial dysfunction arguably align with the Southern Gothic tradition. In a new production of Williams's story of a fractured family of Southern transplants, directors Austin Pendleton and Peter Bloch highlight such generic affinities by lending the play a tinge of the Gothic, rendering, for example, the Wingfield family's lodgings in a manner that evokes genteel decay and including the occasional spooky-sounding musical cue. In conjunction with fine performances by the cast, these decisions highlight the various ways that the Wingfield family members are haunted and accord them a tragic stature.
Alexandra Rose and Ginger Grace. Photo courtesy of Alana Silber
At the head of the impoverished Wingfield clan is matriarch Amanda (Ginger Grace), a woman driven simultaneously and obsessively by nostalgia for her own, more glamorous past as an in-demand Southern belle and fear for her children's futures. The younger of these children is son Tom (Matt de Rogatis), who works in a warehouse by day while in his off-hours attempting to write and escaping for nights of entertainment and drinking. Tom's elder sister, Laura (Alexandra Rose), who is "crippled" from a childhood illness that required her to wear a leg brace, has neither employment nor marriage prospects and spends a significant amount of her time tending to the titular menagerie of small glass animals (seen generously, her investment of these animals with personalities can represent an analog of Tom's frustrated artistic ambitions, as can the abandoned talent for singing of Jim O'Connor [Spencer Scott], Tom's former classmate and current co-worker). Their father, who himself liked a drink and long ago left the family, is present only as a photograph, which here takes the form of a large black-and-white projection of his face, made slightly strange in cropped close-up. Amanda, Laura, and Tom live together among, in this staging, a selection of worn, gray-tinted furniture with symbolically missing pieces. Amanda, desperate to remedy Laura's lack of "gentleman callers," convinces Tom to invite Jim to dinner (an event for which she dresses Laura like a cross between a little girl and a bride), but this wouldn't be a Tennessee Williams play if such a plan turned out well for everyone involved. 

Matt de Rogatis, Ginger Grace, & Alexandra Rose. Photo courtesy Alana Silber
In keeping with the memory-play aesthetic of avoiding strict realism (there are a lot of imagined props) and the subtly Gothic atmosphere, the extremely quick shifts between scenes, while not quite rising to the level of disorienting, do produce at times a dreamlike fluidity, and the inescapability of familial entanglements is suggested by Tom watching scenes that he is not in from the side of stage and Laura similarly appearing as a ghostly presence behind the scrim that makes up the rear wall when she exits. These choices also resonate with the way that the play wraps the characters' personal illusions in references to artistic illusions, particularly magic, movies, and writing, at one point literally wrapping one of Laura's glass animals in a "magic" scarf brought home by Tom. de Rogatis both introduces these themes and sets the tone for the production in Tom's opening monologue, and he adeptly realizes Tom's mixture of rage, love, frustration, and affection all the way through his appropriately haunted delivery of the monologues that bookend the play. Grace's Amanda cuts a more tragic figure than in some productions, less a villain than a struggling if overbearing mother with her glory days long behind her and an occasionally snorting laugh that cuts endearingly against her pretensions to outmoded gentility. Rose, making her professional theater debut, often gives Laura a strained look, and slides her eyes down or away from the people whom she is talking to, which furnishes a transformative quality to the moments when she laughs or seems legitimately happy. Most ot these moments occur during her candlelit interactions with Jim, whom Scott plays as ultimately sincere and, in his own way, if not tragic, then at least regretful.

Anchored by talented performances, Pendleton and Bloch's Glass Menagerie imparts an atmospheric new patina to a classic play.  

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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