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The Glass Menagerie

C. Spencer Beggs | Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Watching any Tennessee Williams play can be like pulling teeth. Williams’ plays are marked by his characteristic long-winded, unnatural and obtuse dialogue that, when performed poorly, can send even the most enthusiastic and academic audience into a boredom-induced coma minutes into a performance. Fortunately, Notre Dame’s Department of Film Television and Theatre’s production of Williams’ The Glass Menagerie does a wonderful job of keeping Williams’ text lively and captivating on stage.The Glass Menagerie is a psychological portrait of a displaced Southern family living in 1930s St. Louis. The show is a self-dubbed “memory play” narrated by Tom Wingfield, the family’s youngest son, who alternates between narrating, participating in the drama and watching his memory unfold before him.

With his father having abandoned his family to fend for itself, Tom works long hours in a shoe warehouse for meager pay to support his overbearing and critical mother, Amanda, and his exceedingly shy and crippled older sister, Laura, who spends her days tending to her collection of glass animal figurines or withdrawn into her own private world. Dissatisfied with his mind-numbing job and emotionally taxing home life, Tom finds his solace in writing poetry, smoking cigarettes on the balcony, going to the movies and spending as much time out of the house as he can.

Amanda also lives in a fantasy world, immersing herself in work for the Daughters of the American Revolution and trying to urge Laura to find something other to do than play with her glass menagerie. The self-deluding Amanda remembers her youth as a Southern belle beset with suitors and in high society and tries to maintain the fantasy of her past and future aristocracy for her children, whom she wants see to succeed in life. Amanda becomes obsessed with the idea of finding a “gentleman caller” who will whisk Laura away and marry her.

The Glass Menagerie has its roots in Williams’ own family life, but the FTT production also borrows some inspiration from its director, Siiri Scoot. Scott focuses on the memory play aspect of the show and based the design of the set on her memories of her own family. She culled the faded, brown look of the Wingfield’s home from a photo album of her grandmother’s childhood that she and her grandmother pieced together when Scott was 11. The Glass Menagerie was also the play that made Scott decide she wanted to do professional theatre when she was 14.

“I think it’s very accessible to young people, because I think we all know what it’s like to live at home with a parent,” Scott said. “We all think our parents were overbearing at some point. Whether they were or not remains to be seen.”

The show also takes a minimal approach staging and props. Scott kept the number of props down to the essentials and has her cast pantomime the rest.

“If it’s not truly integral, we are not using it so that we take this idea that in memories, there are thing that are real to us, but there are other things that may be fuzzy,” Scott said.

The effect is pleasing and keeps the audience focused on the actors and their interactions with each other. The stage is designed similarly in a plain style with no more than a couch, table and record player for the actors to interact with.

Senior Katy Kertez leads the cast with her energetic and charming portrayal of Amanda. Kertez skillfully navigates the balance of Amanda’s roles as an overbearing but loving mother and a disappointed woman with a refreshing poise and grace that explores the depths of Williams’ psychological portraits of his characters. With an amiable southern twang, Kertez sets the pace for the rest on the cast and commands the spotlight every second she is on stage. Kertez, a Notre Dame theatre veteran, brings a lot of experience to the stage and the rest of the cast plays up to her level.

Senior Tom Connor, also a veteran actor at Notre Dame, is also an asset to the performance and manages to make Williams’ challenging text plain and accessible to the audience. Juniors Molly Topper and Bryce Cooper fill out the cast and each turn in respectable performances as well.

For all of its strengths, there are some aspects of Williams’ text that that this production does not bring out as strongly as it could, especially in the motivations of the characters. The Glass Menagerie is not a plot-focused show, but one that makes the plot subservient to the unfolding of each character’s past experiences, thoughts and feelings.Tom’s “going to the movies” is often interpreted as a subterfuge for his exploration of his homosexuality and involvement in the city’s gay culture – an interpretation the FTT show strives for as well. Conner occasionally hints at this with his body language, but it never develops further than that. Many of the double meanings in Tom’s lines are glossed over, making Conners portrayal of Tom a bit shallower than it could have been and his character less sympathetic in the end.

Cooper’s Gentleman Caller also seems a tad bit underdeveloped. Though Cooper does a good job of acting, his brash behavior in the second act of the show is somewhat unaccounted for in his good-guy portrayal or, perhaps, in his interactions with Topper. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what is missing, but the audience will probably leave the show unsure of why minimal plot climax of the story is given the gravity it is by the cast. One of the benefits of performing a Williams play is that there is so much material to work with and interpret, making the success of a production dependent upon bringing out many aspects of the text instead of just one or two. The character shortcomings of the FTT production are defiantly outweighed by its successes, and certainly do not derail or spoil the production completely. They do, however, point to important areas that should have been fleshed out better.FTT’s production of The Glass Menagerie brings Williams’ difficult script a lot of life and is a good introduction to one of America’s most celebrated playwrights … and much more enjoyable than a visit to the dentist.

The Glass Menagerie opens tonight in Washington Hall and run through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. The will be a Sunday matinee at 2:30 p.m. Admission is $10, $9 for senior citizens and $7 for students. Tickers are available at the LaFortune Student Center box office or by calling (574) 631-8128. Audience members with asthma or allergies should be aware that the actors smoke cigarettes on stage.