Thursday, February 16, 2017

Butler University Theatre opens a resonant "Glass Menagerie"

Butler's Wingfield family in "The Glass Menagerie"
Background music is part of the scenario Tennessee Williams stipulates in "The Glass Menagerie," the 1945 drama that made his reputation.

In Butler University's production of the play, the overheard accompaniment varied in appropriateness; there were some puzzling anachronisms. But particularly exact and evocative of both the era and the mood was Billie Holiday's recording of "Crazy He Calls Me," played before the first words came from the stage.

The romantic devotion the song addresses is never realized by anyone in the Wingfield household in a lower-middle-class apartment in St. Louis. But the fierce wistfulness of the family matriarch, Amanda, is caught particularly in these lines:  "The difficult I'll do right now / The impossible will take a little while."

Wounded by the early departure of her handsome husband and the father of her now-adult children, Laura and Tom, Amanda does the difficult daily. That means keeping her son on track, correcting his manners and nurturing the conventional ambitions she imposes on him, while  pressuring her painfully shy daughter to develop a few modest pink-collar skills on the way to a proper marriage. Pathetically, she tries to bring in a little money selling magazine subscriptions by phone, flattering her customers with effusive sympathy for their woes.

Seen in a preview Wednesday evening in the Studio Theatre, the show reinforces in several respects the distortions of memory and the way fantasies sustain the will to go on, grasping to transcend real-life constraints and inhibitions. There is choreography, for example: Dance takes wing to elaborate upon Amanda's memories of being an attractive Southern belle, and later to allow Laura's imagined release from her shell, spurred by a sympathetic conversation with the Gentleman Caller. The former seemed to put forward an overly Oedipal interpretation of the mother-son relationship, but was well brought off. More poignantly, the Laura/Caller dance projected an attractive young woman, moving free of lameness and blossoming under the male attention she misinterprets.

Director Elaina Artemiev displays an imaginative latitude in fleshing out the playwright's assertion (through Tom as narrator) that the story is not told realistically. There is occasionally bold separation of actors, turning Rob Koharchik's unit set to advantage, as some conversations take place as if symbolically underscoring the way each Wingfield, though crucially bound to the others, lives in an individualized world. Tom seeks escape from a dead-end job at a local warehouse, Laura retreats into her collection of glass animals, and Amanda attempts to keep her sugary, vinegary temperament in control while clinging to the hope that the impossible will take just a little while.

Lexi Rohrer, playing Amanda, probably didn't need a dialect coach to emphasize the matriarch's Southern roots; she hails from Lexington, Kentucky. Beyond the idiomatic accent, she creditably created the illusion of a middle-aged, careworn woman. I'll admit I thought her sashaying and fluttery gestures in Amanda's reminiscence of her belle-of-the-ball youth were excessive, but then it struck me that the distorting mirror of Tom's memory means that his mother needn't be played with stylistic restraint or consistency. People we have mixed feelings about tend to be recalled with their features and idiosyncrasies exaggerated. It was thus quite striking that the scene shortly afterward, with Amanda returning home grim and humiliated by the discovery Laura has been skipping classes in stenography and typing, presented a much different person, with all the flutter and well-honed gracefulness gone, and defeat stamped on every feature.

Jeffrey Bird played Tom, a touch self-satisfied in retrospection — a trait that I thought worked: Though Tom's feeling is genuine for his sister and mother, it has been refined by distance in time, place and perspective. In the scenes where Tom is fully in his recalled past, Bird showed an appropriate range, flaring up at his mother or playfully chatting with Laura after a night on the town. Everything about the character came together in Tom's final speech, which I've always considered the most beautifully poignant narrator exit in 20th-century American literature, along with the last page of "The Great Gatsby."

Kallen Ruston's Laura conveyed better through her facial expressions than her voice Laura's fragility, but her look and sound worked together well enough to convey the tender heart of the action. As the Gentleman Caller, Ian Hunt projected the buoyancy and good nature of Tom's co-worker, a dinner guest of whom far too much is expected. It's a difficult role, in that we have to see him as sympathetically sincere, even if he may have self-consciously worked on being well-liked to further his ambitions, rather than someone toying with Laura's affections. A wild analogy: the Gentleman Caller must not seem Eddie Haskell-ish, smugly leading either Laura or Amanda on. Hunt skirted the edge of such a characterization, yet helped keep the poignancy of the situation mostly intact.

The black-box environs probably presented no practical way to lend enough symbolic stature to the family's crucial missing member, but it's no small matter to mention in conclusion that the framed portrait of the scapegrace father ought to be much larger — if only for the sake of reinforcing the memory exaggerations this  production otherwise represents admirably. He stands for the endless "little while" that doing the impossible can take. It's a feature that's made this play classic in a nation devoted to fresh starts and second chances.

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