Thursday, April 8, 2010

Blown Glass

Tom and Laura seem as dismayed by this production as I was.

It's hard to think of two sensibilities more opposed than those of Tennessee Williams and Trinity Rep's Fred Sullivan, Jr., so it's no surprise that nearly everything in Sullivan's production of The Glass Menagerie, which closed last weekend at Pawtucket's Gamm Theatre, felt subtly, but deeply, wrong. Sullivan (who just wrapped a riotous turn as Sir Toby Belch at Trinity) is all about smart, funny, cynical insights - he's the kind of guy who would immediately tear away the silk shades that Blanche DuBois slides over the lightbulbs in A Streetcar Named Desire. But while Williams is all about insight too - like every other great playwright - he's nevertheless quite attached to those silks; he identifies with Blanche, not her attackers.

Of course in The Glass Menagerie, the playwright himself - or rather his factotum, "Tom" (Tennessee's given name) both conjures and destroys the haunted reverie that protects his female protagonists, the fragile, self-conscious Laura Wingfield (Diana Buirski), and her notoriously overbearing, but equally fragile, mother Amanda (Wendy Overly). But do I really have to go into the story of The Glass Menagerie? Don't we all know it by now?

Well, apparently Sullivan doesn't, because in his version, Mom is a kind of drill sergeant and it's son Tom (Marc Dante Mancini) who's so delicate he practically jumps out of his skin whenever she barks an order. Their ongoing war, which should be recalled so ruefully by Tom as he narrates his "memory play," is here sketched as a bitter mother-son battle royale like the one in Awake and Sing! (which, perhaps uncoincidentally, was Sullivan's last directing assignment at the Gamm).

Sullivan's apparent attempt to pound the template from that play onto this one is frustrating in more than one respect, because Wendy Overly brings a high level of detail to Amanda's harangues - this could have been a great performance if it had been pitched at a more graceful, vulnerable angle. But as she bustles about Patrick Lynch's period set (the only aspect of the production that feels right), we never catch a hint of the fact that she, too, is living in a kind of dream designed to ward off reality (Laura and Tom are very much her children). The rest of the cast is likewise prone to pushing things a little too far, and in the wrong key. Mancini overemotes like mad, while Buirski, though certainly a passable Laura, relies too much on technical tricks to simulate the character's famous quiet luminousness. Kelby T. Akin is a bit better as the "Gentleman Caller" who briefly seems to woo her - at least once he calms down after some opening broadness that, like so much else in the production, seems pitched to some nonexistent upper balcony.

There are a few "twists" in the production that I suppose are worth mentioning. Sullivan has decided to break the role of Tom in two, so we get the much-older author, in the person of actor Sam Babbitt (who looks nothing like Mancini) occasionally delivering the lines that sail across the fourth wall - although mostly Babbitt just hangs out on the sofa, watching the action with an air of "been there, done that, found a pill for it." This turns out to be not quite as irritating as it sounds, but it does undermine the play's mysterious atmosphere, and Babbitt's jaded, bemused look doesn't exactly jive with the tone of his lines. (When he sighs that he's been more faithful to Laura than he ever intended, we don't believe him for a second.) Meanwhile the issue of Tom's (and Tennessee's) homosexuality is made clear with a brief tryst on the play's iconic fire escape. This Tom was played as such a nervous nelly that the scene was by and large superfluous, but strangely enough, in its reticence it was probably the subtlest moment in the whole production.