A unique presentation of one of Tennessee Williams’ most popular plays comes to the stage as Towson University’s Department of Theatre Arts presents The Glass Menagerie. Directed by Stephen Nunns, the slice of American life drama explains the discontent of the working class in the 1930s, told through the eyes of a disgruntled factory worker and his dysfunctional home life. With a mother who can’t stop living in her glowing past of gentleman callers and servants, and an emotionally stunted and physically crippled sister, Tom finds himself the protagonist and the narrator to all that unfolds in this literary classic.
Set Designer Daniel Ettinger frames the small apartment with skyscraping panels composed of fire escape ladders and windows. One of the main locations of the play is the fire escape, which Tom uses as his main port of call throughout the performance, and amplifying this set detail to colossal proportions, dwarfing the already diminutive lives the characters lead, is a stunning execution of Williams’ deeply entrenched symbolism. The apartment itself is rather spacious, but laid out in such a manner as to make it appear smaller and more restrictive. Corded ropes hang from the invisible ceiling down to the floor creating corners of the walls, further encroaching the apartment upon its tenants.
Lighting Designer Lana Riggins in conjunction with Composer Jon Dallas sets the tone of the show with their elaborate designs. As described by the narrator before the play even officially begins the play itself is memory; sentimental and thus dimly lit because it’s not realistic. And as everything in memory seems to happen to music it only seems appropriate that Dallas be situated in the corner, playing subdued melodies that highlight the nostalgia of the show. Riggins and Dallas do bring a brightness to appropriate moments of the production; highlighting the mother character in a golden yellow as vibrant as the jonquils she reminisces about. Every time she launches into a fond memory over her days long gone of gentleman callers, servants and Blue Mountain the bright golden light flushes the stage and Dallas begins to pluck a giddy banjo that increases in tempo until the memory comes screeching to a halt, forced there by reality.
Director Stephen Nunns takes creative license with the notion of the family’s patriarch. Being a character that is never physically represented on the stage – save for a portrait over the mantel – but ever-present in the discussion, Nunns actualizes this notion by amplifying the idea of the portrait. Projected in a larger than life fashion is a video feed of the father, remaining almost completely still; occasionally he blinks, or tilts his head, parts his lips; creating an ominous presence of always watching them, always looking down upon them despite having left them. It is an intensely creepy effect; like a painting in a haunted house whose eyes follow you everywhere you go.
Furthering his artistic vision, Nunns augments the sound projection to grotesque proportions. When the family is seated at the table for dinner the echo of the microphone is so intense and so sensitive that you can clearly and painfully hear every clink of silverware against the plates and every mastication made by those eating, and it interferes with hearing Tom’s text as his voice is a rather soft one, despite his amplification.
Tom (Matthew Jeffers) is a unique divided character who speaks with two tones of voice; one for when he is narrating, which posses a more modern sound and approach to his dialect, the other which is more of the 1930s and appropriately rounded. Both, at times, despite his microphone, are hard to hear and some of the more poetic images that he visualizes out on the balcony are lost to the audience. But aside from his vocal setbacks, Jeffers expressions are intense with a ferocity of a man caged by his lot in life. His moments of reflection on the fire escape are haunting; and his shouted monologue about the opium dens is ablaze with his discontent; fiery as he desperately tries to escape his miserably disappointing reality.
Equally as large as life as the portrait of her fled husband, theMatthew Jeffers (Destiny Reeder) is a bright bubbly ball of energy. She is the sunshine in the pit of doom and despair that has been created in Williams’ text; flitting about with senile hope that gentleman callers are coming. Her flirtatious doting upon The Gentleman Caller Jim (Jon Dallas) are wildly inappropriate and add an air of levity to the otherwise dreary story. The high-spirited nature that Reeder brings to the production is contagious despite the other characters disparaging outlook on life.
The picturesque point of nerves is bundled up and stretched out into a waifish twig of a girl, Laura (Rena Brault), the emotionally stunted and physically disabled daughter. Casting Brault, who looks like an elongated ballerina, in the role is a genius physical move by Nunns, giving stark contrast to the rounded mother and dwarfed brother characters. Brault’s nervous disposition is so strong there are moments where Reeder stares at her and you expect her to fly up the chimney and vanish in a wisp of smoke. Her emotional frailty is as delicate as the glass she obsesses over; her mind scattered like each piece in her menagerie.
Brault is an exceptional performer who forces the audience to engage with her through clipped monosyllabic responses, a quivering physicality that belays her nerves, and an overall anxiety that will set your stomach churning with butterflies as you watch her compelling performance.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
The Glass Menagerie plays through October 27, 2012 at The Main Stage Theatre of the Center for the Arts at Towson University, in Towson, MD. Tickets are available for purchase online, or by calling the box office at (410) 704-2787.