Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie may be over 70, but it still seems young and fresh on the stage. There's a reason for that. It lies in Williams' central conflict, with a mother so lost in what she wants for her children that she doesn't see who they are or what they want. The parent/child impasse, the desperation, the inability to understand... It's achingly real.
Because of that, Amanda Wingfield, the mother in question, has been a dream role for generations, as has her son Tom, this memory play's unhappy narrator and a representation of Williams himself. They seem like real people who could be plucked off any family tree.
In the context of the play, the Wingfield family, such as it is, has fallen on hard times. Dad decamped years ago, and the three remaining Wingfields -- Amanda, Tom and daughter Laura, a fragile, shy young woman -- live in a poor apartment in St. Louis. Tom supports the family with his income from a drab job in a shoe factory, even as he dreams of becoming a writer. His mother pushes him to make more of himself, but she also constantly interrupts when he tries to write. As she repeats stories of her own girlhood as a Southern belle, Amanda is desperate to find "gentleman callers" for her daughter, who becomes ill at the very idea.
Don LaCasse, the head of the MFA directing program at Illinois State University, makes this Glass Menagerie moody and a little misty, as befits a memory play. He is aided in that effort by John Stark's beautiful set, framed in brick and lace to keep the action constricted and confined, with a tricky little corner fire escape that affords Tom a breath of fresh air. Cassie Mings' lighting design is just as impressive, moving the actors from shadow to candlelight and darkness and providing a really lovely final tableau.
Connie de Veer leads the cast as Amanda, offering a fully-drawn portrayal of a woman who expected so much more from her life than where she is now. It's not easy to make this domineering, narcissistic woman sympathetic, but de Veer finds a way. We can see her desperation and her lost dreams on her face and in her eyes, no matter what the facade, and the touches of humor in the performance only serve to underline that.
Joe Faifer is strong and equally compelling as Tom, who loves his sister -- and his mother -- even as he chokes on the stranglehold they have on him. His Tom is a little rough around the edges, someone we can see bolting to become a merchant marine, with a command of language that tells us everything we need to know about Tennessee the writer. The layers and the contradictions are all there in Faifer's performance.
As Laura, Elsa Torner is lovely and delicate, visibly shattering at even a hint of having to make her way in the world, breaking our hearts every time she tries to make herself heard, while Patrick Riley's ebullient Gentleman Caller is a welcome counterpoint with his boyish enthusiasm and can-do spirit.
The beauty of this production is that each of the four shows dashed dreams and failed expectations, giving strong support to each corner of Williams' play. After we've met them, we want more for each of them. It's the eternal human dilemma, right there in front of our eyes.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE
By Tennessee Williams
Heartland Theatre Company
Director: Don LaCasse
Assistant Director: Megan Hoepker
Scenic Designer: John Stark
Assistant Scenic Designer/Charge Artist/Properties Master: Jen Kazmierczak
Costume Designer: Lauren Lowell
Lighting Designer: Cassie Mings
Sound Designer: Shannon O'Neill
Assistant Sound Designer: Mat Piotrowski
Stage Manager: Matthew Harter
Cast: Connie de Veer, Joseph Faifer, Patrick Riley and Elsa Torner.
Running time: 2:10, including one 10-minute intermission.
Remaining performances: April 23, 24, 25 and 26, 2015
For performances times and ticket information, click here.
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