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Family Tied

Small But Talented Cast Ably Handles Intimate Mid-20th Century Classic

SHIP SHAPE: Trenessa Coffey (second from left) stands out in the Glass Menagerie’s handsome cast.

By Willy Thorn | Posted 1/11/2006

The Glass Menagerie By Tennessee Williams Through Jan. 15 at Arena Players

The Arena Players production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is a faithfully adherent, emotionally riveting, and often touching version of the American classic. Williams’ masterpiece weaves backstory and envisioned future through a nuclear family, of sorts, in a 1930s St. Louis apartment. There’s little plot, only a pair of pared scenes featuring the four characters: a heavy-handed matron, a coming-of-age man of the house, a gentleman caller, and the young girl who shapes their lives.

The mother, Amanda (Vanessa Stewart), is a hustling, bustling busybody—an aging church lady, has-been socialite, and nagging, nitpicking spinner of dramatic webs—working to raise two children in lieu of a long-departed rolling stone of a husband. “I have to fuss!” she complains.

Primary among her concerns is the fate of her daughter Laura (Trenessa Coffey), a slightly crippled, ill at ease spinster in waiting. She is shy and soft-spoken, prone to solitary long walks, content to play old Victrola records, lose herself in glass figurines, and putter around in orthopedic soles and plain clothing.

The mother dumps bustle and hustle upon her son Tom (Gavin Holcomb). He is a movie- and tavern-dwelling, hard-living, warehouse-working “selfish dreamer”—as his mother too often reminds him—a poet clawing to escape the mundane, draining duty to which he’s called.

So goes the first act. Tom promises to find a date for his sister and enlists high-school chum and fellow warehouse worker Jimmy (Eli Jackson). The second act is the lead-up to dinner and its aftermath. The mother becomes a whirlwind of bubbling, frantic planning and preparation. (“Mother, why does it feel like we’re setting a trap?” cries the daughter.) The story arcs with the nervous date, all ill-rehearsed social skills, sweaty palms, and accidental candlelight.

Arena Players’ interpretation isn’t perfect. It has slow-developing, jumbled lines and mis-juggled exchanges. But the cast strikes, and maintains, familiar tensions: mother and son creating quarrelsome anger, boy and girl exuding romantic nervousness. It time travels, too, escaping historical period-piece trappings. Williams’ finest scenes are permanently familiar territory: a brother regaling his sister with tales of late-night escapades; a single mother escaping desperation through glory days’ tales (courted by 17 men at once, her legend goes); a pair of kids mired in impromptu matchmaking, left to themselves, making small talk and feeling each other out. Scenes like these pull The Glass Menagerie into the here and now, transforming it from a mid-20th-century play written by a white male into a touching tale given life after the century’s turn by an all-black cast in Baltimore.

To his credit, director Randolph Smith goes laissez faire. He has four very talented actors, a classic play, and a legendary theater space. And he spices it up with good music—without selling silence short—and sits back and lets it all develop.

There are some silly elements. Microphones hang obtrusively in an intimate production for a seasoned cast that projects loud and clear. Watching the cast scoop and eat imaginary salad feels strange, as does a candlelit scene burned bright by glaring spotlights. The cast is, if possible, too good-looking. The woman are beautiful, the men handsome, all at the expense of Williams’ run of the mill, workaday world. Stewart, deserted wife and worrisome mother, especially is ever-lovely and better off reminiscing about suitors and enticing the young visitor than exuding tragic airs and singing the blues.

Coffey plays the daughter a little better. Her collection of mannerisms—stuttering stammering, wincing gasps, fidgeting hands, downturned eyes, cautious shuffles—makes her fine-glass fragile. And though she, too, is lovely, and the play’s centerpiece that drives the other characters’ interactions and relationships, she remains true to the role, stepping back and deftly blending and disappearing into scenery.

In the end, the best compliment paid the Arena Players is that the company deftly dodges racial archetypes, regionalism, and timeliness, too. The Glass Menagerie is not a black or white thing. It’s also not a 1930s vs. 2000s standoff. It’s not a St. Louis and Baltimore clash. It’s classic theater, locally flavored, that captures a transcendent, universally familiar moment or two.

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