Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: A Bold Menagerie

"Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion."

These words of the narrator, Tom Wingfield, open Tennessee Williams' classic play The Glass Menagerie, first produced in 1944. While the words may be the same, the revival now playing at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles through October 17 is a bolder, longer and — most surprisingly — funnier staging than has likely ever been mounted. It also brings the play's autobiographical and homosexual subtexts roaring to the fore.

Director Gordon Edelstein and an exceptional cast headed by Judith Ivey take what purists may perceive as excessive liberties with the work. However, Williams actually encourages this in his original forward: "Being a 'memory play,' The Glass Menagerie can be presented with unusual freedom of convention." Taking full advantage of such license, the current production is set in a New Orleans hotel room that Tom has taken refuge in after fleeing his stifling family home in St. Louis (wherein the action ordinarily takes place). Furniture is occasionally moved while the play's three other characters enter and exit or are viewed through a translucent wall to evoke the original setting, but the hotel room remains dominant.

Tom (played superbly by Patch Darragh) sits at his typewriter, situated alongside the collection of tiny glass animals from which the play draws its title, and begins to write. He reads aloud as he types Williams' dialogue. Immediately, Tom's function as a stand-in for the author becomes apparent. Tom's overbearing mother, Amanda (Ivey), and sensitive sister, Laura (Keira Keeley), enter when evoked. The pivotal "Gentleman Caller," Jim O'Connor (a very impressive turn by Ben McKenzie of TV's Southland and The O.C.), also appears as written although Tom is clearly more romantically/sexually interested in him here than is usually presented.

Laura is treated as tragically as ever, although her after-dinner conversation with Jim is, while faithful to Williams' text, significantly lighter and funnier. This actually has the effect of making Jim's eventual rejection of her that much more painful to watch. Keeley is excellent as Laura, and makes the physically- and emotionally-stunted character touching without being pathetic.

For many, the main draw of the Taper's production will be the chance to see Ivey as Amanda Wingfield, who is probably Williams' most memorable female creation after/alongside Blanche DuBois. Ivey is great if at times overripe, the result perhaps of overindulging Amanda's "giddy and gay" side. She also seems to be channeling Beth Grant in Sordid Lives when she displays excessive sympathy ("Awwwwww, you're a Christian martyr, yes, that's what you are!") during her telephone calls to potential magazine subscribers. But when Amanda gets serious, so does Ivey, and she gives the woman a rage that eclipses any prior incarnation of Amanda I've seen.

I largely appreciated the production's more overt depiction of Tom's homosexual tendencies even if at times it felt excessive. Tom comes across as more flamboyant than usual and even speaks with a slight lisp; there are moments when he sounds like Truman Capote. An uncomfortable moment arises while he drunkenly relates his late-night encounter with "Malvolio the Magician" to his sister. With his pants down around his ankles and clad only in boxer shorts, Tom mounts his bed on all fours and makes it very clear that he served as one of the illusionist's "tricks"!

Edelstein & Company's Glass Menagerie certainly isn't our parents' version, but it makes for a revelatory and often enthralling night of theatre.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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