Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 28
 
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
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Music/Theater

PLANS, PROVISIONS AND POETRY: Jim (Tyler Crosby), “the gentleman caller … the long delayed but always expected something that we live for,” and Laura (Laura Hankin) observe Laura’s glass figurine in the candlelight in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through July 19.

Williams’ “Menagerie” Offers Rich Mix of Illusion and Truth in Princeton Summer Theater Staging of Classic “Memory Play”

Donald Gilpin

The Glass Menagerie (1944) was Tennessee Williams’ earliest success, his most autobiographical play, and perhaps his best loved play. There were gigantic later accomplishments, including Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire (1948) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), but Williams, in a career of more than 40 years, never surpassed the exquisite fragility and beauty (like the qualities of the glass figurines of the title) of The Glass Menagerie. Princeton Summer Theater 2009’s high-powered young company, under the direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz, has mounted a striking production of Menagerie, which bears eloquent witness to the qualities that make the play a timeless masterpiece.

“The play is memory,” says Tom Wingfield, the play’s narrator and Williams’ alter ego, in his opening soliloquy. “Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” The setting of the play is Tom’s mind as he remembers his painfully shy sister Laura, his domineering, tragicomic mother Amanda and the infrequent glimmers of hope and beauty amidst the frustration and despair that pervaded their shabby St. Louis apartment.

The action involves the visit of a gentleman caller, invited by Tom in response to the urgent nagging of his mother, to meet his sister. Tom’s permanent departure from his home follows soon afterwards. The events here are hardly fraught with suspense, and the personal losses, though sad and moving, are of less than tragic proportions. The “social background of the play,” which Tom helpfully provides in the opening moments of his reminiscence, includes the troubled world of the late 1930s — the ongoing Depression and the threat of war overseas. The effects of poverty and the war in Europe do play a role in shaping the lives of the Wingfield family, but social commentary is not Williams’ primary interest here; any themes or messages to be extracted from The Glass Menagerie are subtle indeed. Chekhov, not Ibsen, is Williams’ influence here.

The most important qualities for Williams are the human qualities in these living characters. These figures, poetically rendered partly through the narration of Tom and partly through their own words and actions, are fully three-dimensional, true to life in their hopes and dreams, frustrations and despairs. The particularities of time and place are powerful here, but the genuineness of these characters and their lives in their own private worlds and within the family are universal and timeless.

“The Glass Menagerie” runs for one more weekend, July 16-19, with performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., in the Hamilton Murray Theater. Call (609) 258-7062 or visit www.princetonsummertheater.org for further information.

Laura Hankin’s Laura has the fewest lines of the four characters in the play, but remains the focal point throughout. She resembles her beautiful, fragile collection of glass animals, “the glass menagerie,” as she creates an imaginary world into which she escapes from her typing charts and the bleak prospects of her future life with her mother. She is as unusual as “Blue Roses,” the name Jim gives her, or the glass unicorn from her collection. Ms. Hankin, Princeton University undergraduate, is convincing in displaying a range of emotions, from fear and self-consciousness to hope and disappointment. This Laura readily wins the audience’s sympathy in her struggles to overcome her debilitating shyness. Williams’ older sister Rose, after whom Laura is modeled, was actually diagnosed as schizophrenic, and later institutionalized and given a lobotomy.

Sara-Ashley Bischoff’s Amanda is appropriately histrionic, the quintessential aging southern belle, reliving her days in Blue Mountain with multiple gentleman callers, fighting fiercely, in vain, to shape her adult children’s lives. Ms. Bischoff is on target, in character and as credible as a 22-year-old recent Princeton graduate could possibly be in commanding the stage and creating this high-energy, larger-than-life middle-aged woman.

As Tom, Patrick Harvey, currently a theater student at NYU’s Stella Adler Studio, is excellent as he narrates the proceedings and shifts effectively back and forth in his interactions with his sister, mother, and the visitor Jim. Mr. Harvey engages the audience dynamically from the outset with his openness and easy-going, natural manner. He tells his story and portrays the troubled character of Tom with an ease and conviction that attest to his experience and understanding of the complex protagonist.

As Jim the gentleman caller, “an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from” and “the long delayed but always expected something that we live for,” Tyler Crosby, recent Princeton graduate and aspiring professional actor, is perfectly cast and sensitively attuned to this character. In his role of providing a brief, hopeful romantic moment for Laura, before he reveals his unavailability, Mr. Crosby’s Jim is well-intentioned, out-going, thoroughly conventional, and inadvertently hurtful in becoming the agent of a reality upon which Amanda and Laura’s dream shatters.

Production values here are consistently strong, in accord with the non-representational nature of this play that takes place entirely in the mind and memory of the protagonist-narrator. Professionals Allen Grimm (set and lighting design) from Arena Stage in D.C. and Mitch Frank (sound design) from New York head up the production team and succeed in creating a theatrical poetry to complement Williams’ poetry of words. Lighting, music and large screen projections — a smiling photo of Tom’s absent father looms most prominently over the proceedings — help to reflect the lyrical richness and psychological truth of Tom’s poignant reminiscence.

Ms. Blain-Cruz, Princeton 2006 graduate and New York City-based director, heading this fall to pursue her studies at Yale Drama School, brings all elements of the production together with a fine touch and a thoughtful, mature understanding of these curious characters and their difficult relationships. Actors, designers, and director take the time here to make sure that the most important elements of this play come across.

Elia Kazan, who directed many of Tennessee Williams’ great plays on stage and film stated, “Everything in his life is in his plays and everything in his plays is in his life.” The truth of that observation is nowhere more apparent than in The Glass Menagerie, where these troubled, wounded characters so closely resemble Williams’ mother, his sister, and himself during his early adult years in the 1930s. The idiosyncratic particularity and loving detail of Williams’ depiction of those individuals and that family acquire a certain beauty, truth, and universality that this Princeton Summer Theater production evokes with power and poignancy.

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