Misplaced Menagerie

The Old Globe Theatre’s “Classics Up Close” series presents some of the great works of American theater on the small Cassius Carter Centre Stage. The theater-in-the-round offers an intimate look at plays usually seen many rows away. And you’d think Tennessee Williams’s haunted “memory” drama, The Glass Menagerie, would be a perfect choice for the series. But in almost every frame, the show gives the distinct impression that it resents close inspection. In fact, I can’t remember a production more obviously uncomfortable with its surroundings.

Joe Calarco ably directed Lincolnesque in the Carter two years ago. His cast did restrained, stately work. So Calarco’s familiar with the space, knows the demands of playing to four walls of bleachered spectators. But his Menagerie’s another matter: it refuses to stand still. Someone makes an abrupt move every five beats. They bounce up or suddenly wheel and go, as if late for an appointment. These mannered movements consistently pull focus from the story. At one point, in possibly one of the strangest choices in the history of Menagerie stagings, poor “crippled” Laura scrambles up the southwest steps on all fours, like a frightened cat.

In Tom’s monologues a herky-jerky, overly gestural Michael Simpson makes a quarter-turn, addresses some lines to one side of the audience, then makes another turn, addresses another side, then another. After a while he looks like a lighthouse beam, slowly spinning in place, shining on one-fourth of the room and leaving the rest in the dark (some of Tom’s narrations are done in voice-over, which takes him outside the scene altogether). The actors’ movements would be less irksome if the text motivated them, but many aren’t. They simply reassemble and perform to a different wall.

Michael Fagin’s abstract set contributes to the problem. The round “floor,” a brown mesa centerstage, stands higher than the rooms around it (for reasons unclear, instead of the claustrophobic brick walls that surround the apartment, the floor’s also displayed on three of the Carter’s walls). When actors move from one room to the next, often they must drop down or rise over an entry runway, or, for the key scene, step up to the floor.

The acting, apart from the steeplechase upstaging it, is surprisingly reined in. Mare Winningham plays Amanda — the mother given to operatic extremes — in a contained fashion. Her voice rises and falls with musical precision, and her timing is stopwatch precise, but her emotions rarely flare, her control-urges rarely grasp (even the “girlish frock” she wears, from her “jonquil” days, is muted). Michelle Federer’s Laura, who sometimes forgets to limp, could use more introversion. And Kevin Isola plays the Gentleman Caller almost free from subtexts (his chat with Laura is both actual and a chance to practice what he’s learning in a public speaking class: how to fit in with anyone).

In the play, Tom Wingfield returns, in his imagination, to the scene of his gravest crime: Depression-riddled St. Louis in the late 1930s — a time, he says, “when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind.” A budding poet working in a shoe factory, he wants to break free — as Tennessee Williams did from his helpless sister Rose. And Tom will, abandoning her in the process; “to escape from a trap,” Williams writes, Tom has “to act without pity.”

In Our Town, the deceased Emily wants to return to her family for one day, just to watch. Don’t go on a good one, the narrator warns, it’ll be too much to handle. In Menagerie, which has studied every innovative technique of Our Town, Tom chooses to revisit the greatest, and worst, day of his sister’s life. Rejected by the Gentleman Caller, she loses forever “the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for” — and shatters like one of her glass figurines.

Laura’s recognition, that the Gentleman Caller’s spoken for, is the key moment in Menagerie. American theater has few as devastating. As the scene progresses, she rises toward the sun, then plunges, like an Icarus, into oblivion. In Calarco’s staging, however, candlelit Laura and the Gentleman Caller face southeast, which blocks her reaction to 80 percent of the audience.

In his production notes, Williams bemoans the state of realistic (he calls it “photographic”) theater and asks for fluid, “plastic” representation. But, he adds, “When a play employs unconventional techniques, it is not, or certainly shouldn’t be, trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality…but should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are.” The Old Globe’s fitful, jumping-bean Menagerie is unconventional, true, but also unappealing.

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