Tragedy by extremity tempered by wit and desire at the Arden

Although retired since 2014, I still relish opportunities to teach, write, and share opinions.
Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece The Glass Menagerie is now at the F. Otto Haas Stage at the Arden Theatre with an outstanding cast of actors.
 
Seldom seen onstage, it is a difficult play for audiences to sit through, mostly because many may know the story, while others who are new to it can smell the burning barrel of tar filled with regret, hopelessness, loneliness, and futility for the next two hours or so. Does Williams want us to believe love brings pain? Does the playwright know the sad, tragic outcome and trap us into caring? Unfortunately, yes. Tragedies like Sister Carrie, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Death of a Salesman all changed the face of American Literature. Williams chose to plumb a memoir of his own family tragedy, and a few others, perhaps, to create a situation in the late 1930s, where people were optimistic and most were embracing change. Little did they know that the adventure looming ahead was World War II, as our narrator Tom tells us in a poetic monologue at the start of the play. 
 
A memory play (as written by Tennessee Williams), we are in 1944, the time the play appeared on Broadway, looking back at the 1930s. The Wingfield family has matriarch Amanda, played with a vicious, relentless nagging persona by Krista Apple. Laura Wingfield is a morbidly self-conscious, shy woman of 23 with a limp for which she wears a leg brace. Hannah Brannau’s Laura is seriously handicapped and must use a walking wheelchair appliance. This makes her entirely different from most interpretations, where Laura is overcome more by fear than reality. The Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor, here played by a fine Frank Jimenez, remembers only her limp. There is a great dissonance when Amanda orders Laura to go to the store. How is Laura going to negotiate the stairs alone? They don’t live on the first floor. There’s a fire escape with a view, so they live on an upper floor. Tom Wingfield, the playwright’s alter ego, is here played with nuance and skill by Sean Lally. 
 
The Wingfields have an unfortunate “all or nothing” mentality. Tom (although younger than Laura, probably around 21) is expected to be the breadwinner for himself, Amanda, and Laura forever. Mother Amanda often cuts any thought of himself down by telling him he is selfish. Amanda, all of a sudden, decides that Laura should get married, and fast, so Tom gets a coworker to come for dinner. 
 
Looking at this situation with 21st century eyes, it appears that Jim came to dinner to see Tom. He was surprised to know Laura existed. Also, Jim and Tom bonded at work in a rather homosocial situation. Jim later kisses Laura and is instantly flustered. Because of Jim’s “crisis” after high school, or his canceled marriage, we never know if he has made up a new fiancee to never see Laura again. 
 
Extremes of behavior and extremes in everything seem to be a principal downfall of the Wingfields. Amanda has allowed Laura to stay home for years until it becomes clear that isn’t a good idea. Amanda lives in a fictional world, still keeping a photo of her husband on the living room wall after he abandoned them years ago. She also demands that Tom take care of Laura for as long as she lives. Tom just wants to get far away from his insufferable mother and tragic sister. Jim can either be seen as someone healthy, or someone who is also extremely shady. 
 
The Glass Menagerie is a classic stage drama of the 20th century written by one of the great playwrights of that century. For a bit over two hours, slide your mind into the 1930s. A must see theatrical event. Their pain, drama, and optimism you will find are no different than ours today.
 
Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie will be at the Arden Theatre complex until November 6. 
For information, visit www.ardentheatre.org or 
call 215-922-1122.

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