It's not like Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie has ever gone out of style, but still... Recently -- or maybe since the Broadway revival that starred Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield and Zachary Quinto as her son Tom -- Glass Menagerie has been hotter than hot.
Heartland Theatre's production, which opens tomorrow night with a "pay what you can preview," is directed by Don LaCasse, the Illinois State University professor at the helm of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Lynn Nottage's musing on what it meant to be an African-American movie star in the first half of the 20th century, last fall for ISU, and Douglas Post's psychological mystery Earth and Sky for Heartland last season. The Glass Menagerie is considerably different from either of those shows, although it does have strong female characters in common with the other two.
LaCasse directs ISU professor Connie de Veer as Amanda Wingfield, the lapsed Southern belle who despairs of understanding her children or the place her life has led her. The Glass Menagerie offers de Veer a chance to take on one of the biggest roles in the American theatrical canon, one originated by the legendary Laurette Taylor and revived on stage by the likes of Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris, Jessica Lange, and, as mentioned above, the amazing Cherry Jones. Joanne Woodward played Amanda in a very well-received 1987 film directed by her husband Paul Newman, while Shirley Booth and Katharine Hepburn were very different Amandas in very different versions of the play produced for television.
The actors who have played Tom, the stand-in role for Tennessee Williams himself, are also a Who's Who of the American stage, from Eddie Dowling, who produced and directed the 1945 Chicago production that put the play on the map and then moved to Broadway; to Montgomery Clift, George Grizzard, Hal Holbrook, Željko Ivanek, John Malkovich, Rip Torn and Sam Waterston. And, of course, Zachary Quinto, the new Spock, who was opposite Cherry Jones.
For LaCasse's production, Tom will be played by Joe Faifer, a fine actor who graced ISU stages in roles as disparate as inebriated old actor Selsdon Mowbray in Noises Off, an innocent man sent to Death Row in The Exonerated and a father slipping into dementia in Tales of the Lost Formicans.
That's the beauty of The Glass Menagerie and why it's such a great choice for all these revivals and reimaginings -- the characters are so strong and yet so flexible that every production is a little different, each providing a new lens to see the play. Joanne Woodward and John Malkovich make for a unique mother and son, just as Laurette Taylor and Eddie Dowling did before them. And de Veer and Faifer will at Heartland.
They will be joined at Heartland by Elsa Torner, who played Christina, the youngest Mundy sister in ISU's recent Dancing at Lughnasa, as Laura, Tom's fragile sister, while Patrick Riley, seen to good advantage in The Marriage of Bette and Boo and Playboy of the Western World in Westhoff Theatre, as Jim, the would-be suitor Tom brings home after pressure from his mother to provide a "Gentleman Caller" for his sister.
After tomorrow's "pay what you can" preview, The Glass Menagerie will continue at Heartland Theatre on June 10 and 11; 16, 17, 18 and 19; and 23, 24, 25 and 26, with evening performances at 7:30 pm and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. The cast will be present for a talkback after the matinee on the 19th to answer questions about how they approached their roles and why this play continues to exert such a strong influence in American theatre.
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