Orange County’s Theatre Out concludes its 2015 season with a mostly quite successful revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, a play which, even seven decades after its 1944 Broadway premiere, remains his most timeless work.
As any Williams aficionado will tell you, The Glass Menagerie unfolds in the memory of its narrator Tom Wingfield (Ben Green), a young man who, like his father before him, deserted a stifling family life for one of adventure.
We never learn whether Tom’s dad (“a telephone man who fell in love with long distances”) looked back with regret at the life and family he abandoned.
What Williams’s play does make clear is that Tom’s decision to abandon his mother Amanda (Roxie Lee) and more especially his sister Laura (Alexis Stansfield) still weighs heavily on his conscience, even years later.
The playwright makes it equally understandable why Tom might have wanted to flee from the drudgery of a day-to-day that began each morning with the grating call of “Rise and shine” from his faded Southern belle of a mother, followed by a tedious factory job which slowly but surely was killing his spirit.
Whatever his reasons for leaving, Tom Wingfield has found himself unable to forget Laura, and The Glass Menagerie revolves around a pivotal incident in his sister’s life, the evening she received her first—and quite possibly her last—“gentleman caller.”
Gentleman callers were hardly lacking in Amanda Wingfield’s debutante years. In fact (or as legend would have it), she once had seventeen of them on a single evening, something which she does not let her son or daughter forget.
Tom, at least, has the escape that even a drudgery-filled job provides. Painfully shy Laura has no such out, and stigmatized by a slight limp and incapable of completing even a week of the typing class Amanda still thinks her daughter is attending, she chooses now to spend her days taking solitary walks in the wintry cold.
Only Laura’s “menagerie” of tiny glass animals seems to give her a reason to live, that is until Tom invites fellow factory worker Jim O’Connor (Joey Ruggiero), a former classmate of Laura’s—and the object of her secret affection—to dinner.
It is clear from David Carnevale’s Theatre Out revival that the director both loves and understands Williams’s chef-d’oeuvre, and for the most part his choices (and those of his actors) work to give the intimate staging dramatic power and emotional punch.
Green’s intense dramatic work as Tom serves as a reminder of the “Discovery Of The Year” Scenie he won for his Theatre Out star turns in Bent and Edward II, and following his tongue-in-cheek Kanaka in Psycho Beach Party, this dynamic, richly-layered, touching performance is another Ben Green winner.
Whittier Community Theatre treasure Lee brings a refreshing subtlety and vulnerability to a role that has approached caricature in others’ hands. Lee’s Amanda may not get the laughs that a broader performance might inspire, but she makes the Wingfield matriarch real, and gets us to care about her even at her most manipulative.
By contrast, Stansfield overplays Laura’s shyness in Act One to the point of psychosis in a performance that might work in a 1000-seat auditorium but is way too big for a tiny blackbox. Fortunately, things improve considerably upon Jim’s arrival, and in the extended two-hander that makes up most of The Glass Menagerie’s second act, Stansfield’s work becomes authentic, vulnerable, and quite touching.
The charismatic Ruggiero is by far the most appealing Jim I’ve seen, the Cal State Long Beach theater major investing the role with a confident swagger that avoids self-conceit and a heartfelt sincerity that makes us believe every word he says. Expect big things ahead for Joey Ruggiero.
While Tennessee Williams’s sexual orientation may in and of itself be reason enough to include The Glass Menagerie in an LGBT theater season (next year’s at Theatre Out includes four Sondheim musicals, most without specific gay content), I can’t help wishing more had been done with the script’s veiled hints that Tom might share the playwright’s sexuality.
As directed and played here, neither Tom’s mannerisms nor his talk of nights spent at the movies nor his encounter with a rainbow scarf-bearing magician nor his reaction to the sexy coworker he brings to dinner suggest a secretly gay man. That’s not to say that they absolutely have to, nor should this detract from the excellence of Green’s performance. Still, the play might resonate more strongly with Theatre Out’s core audience were its narrator given a more overtly queer edge.
Joey Baital and Carnevale’s terrific scenic design brings to life the cramped Wingfield flat in all its lace-curtained lack-of splendor, with snaps for its Act Two spiffing-up in anticipation of Jim’s arrival. (I do wish, however, that we actually got to see Tom’s departed dad’s face instead of an empty frame.) The Theatre Out co-founders’ costumes merit high marks too as does Joy Chessmar-Bice’s subtly beautiful lighting design. (Act Two’s candlelight shadows are exquisitely rendered.) Wig designer/hair consultant EB Bohks gets an A for Amanda’s wig, but only a C- for Laura’s.
The Glass Menagerie is produced by Carnevale and Baital. Amber Goebel is stage manager and Tiffany Kosek is assistant stage manager.
With four Sondheim musicals (a couple of them rarely staged), plus Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, plus the long-awaited local debut of Brian Sloan’s powerful WTC View on tap for 2016, the year ahead looks to be one of Theatre Out’s biggest, busiest, and best ever.
In the meantime, The Glass Menagerie concludes 2015 on a high note for Orange County’s LGBT gem.
Theatre Out, 402 W. 4th Street, Santa Ana.
November 21, 2105
Photos: David C. Carnevale