by Gail M. Burns
When you live with a story for a long time – and most Americans are introduced to Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie in high school or college – you see it through the lens not only of your own personal experience, but also of the social milieu of the day. I first met this play as a teenager in the early 1970’s. Freudian theory was still widely accepted, and Amanda Wingfield was presented as a selfish, domineering mother who stifled her children and ruined their lives. It was still generally believed that a mother like that was the cause of a son’s homosexuality. At first I saw Amanda as the villain of the piece.
Later, I transferred that title to Tom, who abandons his mother and helpless sister just like his father before him. Now I tend to consider Jim, the gentleman caller, as the villain who raises, then crushes Amanda and Laura’s hopes.
The Glass Menagerie, currently playing at Hubbard Hall, is the mostly highly autobiographical of Williams’ plays, and his first commercial success. It is obvious that Tom is Williams – whose given name was Thomas – and Laura is his elder sister, Rose, who ended up institutionalized for life after a botched lobotomy. Amanda is their mother, Edwina Dakin Williams. The family did live in St. Louis, his father was a traveling salesman more often on the road than at home, and Williams did work in a shoe warehouse. But Williams was the sickly child over whom his mother fawned, and there was another son in the family.
In his director’s notes in the program Roger Danforth identifies this as a production about family – about how we love and quarrel and outgrow our familial bonds over time. And in this time and place I agree with him. The Wingfield family are no more or less dysfunctional than many, and Williams crafts his Memory Play with love as well as the keen eye of an artist.
Christine Decker gives us an Amanda whose every thought and action is focused on survival – her own and her children’s. Her own survival depends not only on Tom’s ability to earn enough money for food and shelter, but also on clinging to her identity as a turn-of-the-20th century southern belle. You like this Amanda, you laugh at her foibles and feel her pain, but you never see her as the villain. There is no attempt to make Amanda glamorous, which makes her Act II appearance in a lacy old cotillion dress endearingly pathetic, rather than a heartless stab at outshining her mousy daughter.
There is no danger of that here. Grace Sgambettera is luminously beautiful as Laura. She completely captures the character’s psychological frailty, even as she fails to embody Laura’s physical handicap. Sgambettera walks with no trace of a limp, and shifts agilely around on the floor in Act II in a way that a person with a leg that requires a brace would be unable to do. But that quibble aside, she certainly presents a young woman whose weaknesses and wounds render her unable to cope with the world.
By staging the play in the round, Danforth and scenic designer Andrea Nice have deprived David Snider’s Tom of an escape from the interior of the cramped Wingfield apartment. When Tom goes out, which he must to frequently to preserve his sanity, we never see him as physically outside, only lurking on the periphery. Williams calls for both an interior and an exterior set where we can see Tom as separate from the memory shadows he is narrating, which also inescapably haunt him across the years.
And into this tight family enclave comes the Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor (Woodrow Proctor), a co-worker with Tom at the shoe warehouse, and unbeknownst to both men, the object of Laura’s high school crush. Even as the electricity goes out (Tom has used the money intended for the electric bill to buy his freedom in the Merchant Marines) the Gentleman Caller brings light and hope into the Wingfield home. For him Amanda spruces up the house, herself, and Laura. He revives in Amanda all the flirtatious fun of her carefree girlhood surrounded by suitors promising hope for a prosperous and in the upper echelons of society. He taps in to a similar time in Laura’s life, when she was younger and felt the first stirrings of love for the Big Man on Campus. After spectacular success socially, academically, artistically, and athletically in high school, Jim has found his own young adult life a disappointment, and is pleased to retreat with Laura to memories of the days when he was the Pirate King and the star athlete.
Proctor balances Jim’s genuine charm and social ease with his slow reversion to the cock-sure self-importance and sense of entitlement of his teenaged self. Does he lead Laura on because he genuinely cares for her, or because he enjoys her adulation of him? Is he really spoken for, or does he devise that ruse to extricate himself quickly and easily, in spite of the pain he knows he is causing?
Sherry Recinella, who frequently costumes Hubbard Hall productions, has assembled simple depression era drab ensembles, except for Laura’s lovely Act II dress, which Amanda has probably hocked something precious to obtain; and Amanda’s own frothy cotillion creation, complete with a sparkly tiara-like headband.
Directors at Hubbard Hall have long made use of the Hall itself as part of the set. There is something about the 1878 wooden opera house that brings a special glow from a time gone by, as Kyra Fitzgerald’s beautiful photographs of this production show. Despite the previously mentioned drawback to Danforth’s decision to stage the show in the round – three-quarters round might have been a better choice – he, Nice, lighting designer Melissa Mizell, and technical director Benjie White make full use of the Hall’s ambience. When the disco ball whirls the sparkles of light from the Paradise Dance Hall across the historic painted ceiling, when the candles glow between Laura and her Gentleman Caller, making the little glass animals shimmer, when the period music swells and Jim sweeps Laura off her feet. These are magical stage pictures that can only be created at Hubbard Hall.
Hubbard Hall presents The Glass Menagerie by Tennesee Williams, directed by Roger Danforth. Scenic Designer Andrea Nice; Costume Designer Sherry Recinella; Lighting Designer Melissa Mizell; Technical Director Benjie White; Stage Manager Kate Johnson; Choreographer Darcy May; Executive & Artistic Director David Andrew Snider. Cast: David Snider as Tom Wingfield; Christine Decker as Amanda Wingfield; Grace Sgambettera as Laura Wingfield; and Woodrow Proctor as Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. Performances Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from April 22-May 7 at Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main Street, Cambridge, NY. Tickets: $25/$10 Students. 518-677-2495