Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

“The Glass Menagerie” Fits Well, Mostly, at Sierra Madre Playhouse

TGM2016Jim Laura Unicorn copy

Andrea Muller as Laura and Ross Philips as Jim, the Gentleman Caller in Sierra Madre Playhouse’s “The Glass Menagerie: [photo: Gina Long]

Of all of Tennessee Williams’ great plays, “The Glass Menagerie” remains the best known, showing up in high school English textbooks and even – back in the early 70s – bringing TV-shy Katharine Hepburn to the small screen. Perhaps what makes it so engaging is its semi-autobiographical nature. Perhaps it is the intense reality of its characters, and the sad yet open-ended conclusion.
Whatever the reason, it has captured the imagination of generations of theatergoers.

Now a new production at the Sierra Madre Playhouse offers up strong performances, evocative and atmospheric music, and a set and lighting design focused (as Williams wanted) on the fact it is a “memory play.” One choice of director Christian Lobano may fuzz focus at times, but in general this production offers a fine chance to see a great American classic.

The play centers on Tom, who is both protagonist and narrator, and his view of his family. Tom lives with and supports his mother Amanda, a faded southern belle whose husband has long since wandered off. Her constantly replayed tales of youthful popularity and her inability to develop enough practicality to survive without the support of others prove maddening to Tom, as does her insistence that her daughter, the club-footed and profoundly shy Laura will one day be receiving “gentleman callers” just as her mother did. Pushed, Tom does invite to dinner a male friend from his uninspiring workplace, with complex consequences.

The best thing in this production has to be the cast. Katherine James creates in Amanda the kind of conversational style obviously intended to cover an innate desperation, and the carriage of a woman trying to recapture a long-gone youth. Andrea Muller makes Laura fragile but not pitiful – a tough balancing act. Because she does this so well, Ross Philips’ gentleman caller can respond to her in ways which give her a warmth not always seen in productions of this play. Philips’ portrayal of Jim, the caller, balances the man’s own anxieties and optimism in ways which make his energy infectious.

The play’s original score, composed by Jonathan Beard, gives the entire play a specific, interesting undercurrent. Erin Walley’s set design takes the original stage directions and adapts them beautifully to SMP’s far smaller stage, while Pablo Santiago’s moody, sometimes dim lighting underscore the thing as a piece of memory. Indeed, in this fine production, if there is one thing which could arguably use a second look, it would be Lobano’s decision to remove Tom to the spot of narrator more often and more intentionally than usual.

In plays like “Dancing at Lughnasa” the narrator is always outside the frame. Even when speaking to characters in the story he does so from a distance, and he stands to one side as a constant observer. That distance is important to the storyline and the way that tale is told. The thing is, that concept doesn’t really translate to “Menagerie”.

One must have Tom in the room with Amanda to feel his rising anger. And one must have Tom away and unobservant when elements central to the storyline – particularly Laura and her caller – evolve in ways Tom can’t expect. To have him standing to one side agonizing over his sister’s fate distracts from a fantastically important (and extremely well done) scene Tom should never have seen. That, and the caller’s callous (and unscripted) action in the aftermath muddy the thematic angle of the piece.

Still, it says much about this production that one can nitpick a director’s choices. The entire performance has a clean and sharp quality which make it engaging from beginning to end. Most certainly, the strong characterizations carry the day. So, if you have never seen “The Glass Menagerie,” now is the time, and Sierra Madre Playhouse is the place. Go take a look.

What: “The Glass Menagerie” When: through June 19, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance at 7 pm on June 12, and at 2:30 p.m. on June 18. There will be no performances on June 10 and 11 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth (13-20), $17 children under 12 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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