Walking on broken glass

‘Glass Menagerie’ finally at the Human Race Theatre

By Jacqui Theobald

“You may have a vague memory of reading Tennessee Williams’ first play in school, but have you ever seen it?” queries Kevin Moore, artistic director and president of the Human Race Theatre Company. In fact, this is the first time in its 30 years the company has done Williams’ work.

You may never see a better production than this one that runs through Feb. 21. Director Greg Hellems has not only cast actors who look as we might imagine, but skillfully give such true-to-character portrayals that whether you’ve seen it before doesn’t matter.

Hellems directs thoughtfully, with deep understanding of memory’s fragile nature. Tom, the semi- autobiographical narrator and main character, is brought to life by Scott Hunt. He is remembering his vulnerability to the power-force that is his mother, Amanda (Jennifer Joplin), and his connection to his delicate, emotionally fragile sister, Laura (Claire Kennedy).

Focusing on memory, this production presents a remarkable degree of coordination between direction, set, music, even the cover of the program. Memories can be fractured, as visualized by the floor of the raised stage. Memory can be self-serving as used by Tom to somehow assuage his guilt over having finally escaped the stifling atmosphere of his mother living in the past of her imagined southern-belle glory and his sister’s devastating emotional pain.

Hunt demonstrates both the subtlety and the strength of his talent as he boldly takes us with him through the couch-jumping agonies that Tom so graphically remembers. He is a whirling dervish of anger and frustration. He is tender and sensitive toward his sister. And his regret-filled final scene, tinged with audible tears, is a memorable piece of theatre.

That the role of Laura is minimalist in speech is used by Kennedy to make use expression, every downcast eye, every bit of body language including constantly twisting fingers to demonstrate what cannot be said. She brings a silent agony that parallels Tom’s verbal and emotional entanglements with Amanda.

“The Gentleman Caller” almost has become a part of the English language. Amanda’s memories, laden with regret and perhaps magnified by the passage of years, focus on her hordes of gentlemen callers in her Mississippi Delta youth. She is insensitive to her adult children’s needs and blindly self-serving. So, of course, she works herself into a state of high anxiety and a flurry of overblown activity for the caller’s visit. Joplin more than does it justice.

Eventually the scene becomes Laura and the caller’s. Drew Vidal, both physically and with straightforward, innocent delivery provides the contrast of being normal, somewhat naïve, though kind and concerned. Laura blooms for a moment under his warmth, before the crash of the glass menagerie.

Set Designer Eric Barker creates a very original tangible memory piece, the broken appearance of the surface they stand on, stuffed beneath with all kinds of objects the family can’t let go. Subtle but telling. To audience left is the fire escape, Williams’ obvious symbol, functionally built by Technical Director Scott J. Kimmins and Head Carpenter Eric Moore and their team. Patrons in the first two rows have a close-up view of things under the stage. Gathered by Properties Master Heather Powell with final selections by Barker, they are half hidden, almost moat-like, but clearly a presence as remembered objects often are.

Director Hellems sets present time for the narrator. Then he looks back to an era that replicates the financial desperation of the depression, World War II, as well as the present financial unrest. He hopes the audience will believe both the realism and the poetic connections. The shards of dysfunctional families have no time limit.

Hellems says cast and crew worked creatively together to find the right balance between realism and fantasy. “I hope people will be absorbed … ” Tom says.

Costume Designer Ayn Kaethchen Wood has creatively and carefully dressed each character. For the dinner, Amanda trunk-shops and digs out one of her girlhood fancies, totally tacky on her matron self and puts Laura, squirming and tortured, into her bare-armed hand-me-down. Earlier, the everyday clothes of each reflect the straightened circumstances with out-of-date, well-worn pieces again illustrating the contrast of reality and memory.

Multi-talented Jay Brunner is both composer of original music and sound designer for this show. He brings an ephemeral quality to the production with light almost magic themes for each character as well as Laura’s glass unicorn. Using piano, violin, glockenspiel and contra-bass clarinet he has devised beautiful melodies with a mesmerizing original sound.

To further the present/past concept when narrator Tom addresses the audience the sound emanates in front of the stage; when in memory mode it comes from the stage. To add to the lightness of identifying sound, Brunner has used an echo effect as if underwater. “I have loved writing this music,” he says.

Music is not required in the original script, leaving options open. Brunner adds to the sense of broken glass and his music becomes another facet of memory.

Glass artist Crystal Summers of Rising Phoenix Glass studio, Hamilton has created the Glass Menagerie, properly light and fragile. It’s a shame to have to really break a unicorn every show.

John Rensel is light designer, Kay Carver is production stage manager. Dialect coach is Deborah Thomas who has kept the southern accents soft and non-obtrusive.

The Human Race Theatre Company presents Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” now through Feb. 21. Show times are 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Tuesdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St. in Dayton. For tickets or more information, please call 937.228.3630 or go to humanracetheatre.org.

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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