All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Glass Menagerie — Act II Playhouse

images (33)The sad lucklessness of the Wingfield family of FDR-era St. Louis resonates deeply through James J. Christy’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” for Act II Playhouse.

All of Amanda’s plans and efforts go awry more inevitably and poignantly in this production of the Tennessee Williams classic than in most. Tom’s opening speech, in which he introduces the memory play to unfold seems to emphasize its weightier parts, especially as he talks about the Depression, his father’s departure, and brewing world conflict. America seems to be in Williams’s thoughts as much as the Wingfields are. They might be meant to represent the plight of many rather than being one specific family among millions. Even the bickering between Amanda and Tom is more barbed and contains more truth-in-anger on the Act II stage. Charlie DelMarcelle’s Tom seems especially restless and unsentimental. He lets you see Tom’s threats to abandon his mother and sister are not idle and that Amanda may have to cope with misfortune again. And soon.

The dimmer light, the reduced chances of success Christy posits, gives extra pathos to this production. Even the brighter sequences and even-tempered speeches are tinged with the portent of calamity to come. That calamity may be part of the simple vicissitude of life, but it will hit Amanda hard and by extension, her daughter, the fragile Laura. Tom may be off to adventure and a grand future, but for the people he leaves behind, all will be at least temporarily bleak. The Wingfield family candles will be blown out.

Though Christy’s production strikes a somber tone, it also has sweet moments and high points. The visit of Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller, is quite tender and fulfills all of Amanda’s hopes for such an event until reality intervenes to break the spell. Though beset by many problems and subject to venomous quarrels with Tom, Carla Belver’s Amanda is capable of summoning the airy spirit he had when she entertained beaux, 17 of them on one occasion, when she was an ingénue. DelMarcelle’s Tom also has instances of humor when he relaxes and shows his ready wit.

The Wingfields are typical of families that struggled though difficult financial times. Tom labors for $65 a month at shoe warehouse where he is not noted for his dedication to his job or camaraderie with his co-workers. Amanda mentions a part-time at a department store and earns some pin money by selling subscriptions by telephone to a women’s magazine that specializes in melodramatic serials. Laura, the sister, is incapable of contributing to the family budget. She is painfully shy and gets ill at the thought of having to perform in front of, let along please, others in a supervisory role. Among the early debacles is Amanda learning Laura frequented the zoo and sat in tea shops for warmth from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. when she was supposed to be attending a course in typing and stenography for which Amanda paid $50.

Defeat and disappointment seems to be the Wingfields’ lot. Their day is only leavened by upbeat jazz that wafts through their window from a neighboring dance hall and by Amanda trying to cheer the apartment by telling stories of her girlhood as a belle residing near the Mississippi Delta.

Amanda reveals a lot. She tells how she met Tom and Laura’s father, who she says worked for the telephone company and fell in love with long distance. Mr. Wingfield’s only correspondence to his family in a decade was a picture post card that contained two words, “hello” and “good-bye,” She refers to keeping the family together until Tom could assume some the bread-winning responsibility.

The difference between Belver’s Amanda and DelMarcelle’s Tom is Amanda has hope while Tom has dreams. Where they coincide is at the pathetic juncture where neither of their plans or ambitions seem likely to come through.

Although “The Glass Menagerie” is dream play, Christy’s production comes from a core of reality. Belver’s Amanda might reminisce, but she is aware of her family’s situation and is down-to-earth on most matters. She resembles other mothers when she admonishes her children to eat slowly and chew their food, advice DelMarcelle’s Tom reacts to with savage scorn. She also shows the toughness life has forced on her. As far as her resources will let her, Amanda is a woman who makes things happen, a competent person who can figure out most domestic dilemmas but hasn’t quite mastered how to have a worry-free life. You can see Belver thinking about Amanda’s problems and striving to come up with a reasonable solution.

Belver’s is a solid Amanda who can summon charm and harken back to days of gentility and ease but, who in the long run, is a mother who has to motivate grown children who have little gumption. Tom rightfully wants credit for getting up each morning and slogging to a job he hates, but he shows little ambition to do the practical and try to use his brains to earn more. He is much more drawn to the exotic and the romantic, adventures a man can remember and tell to others, just as Amanda has her memories of Moon Lake.

DelMarcelle’s Tom doesn’t show this dreamier side to his families and colleagues. It’s bad enough that Jim O’Connor, his one friend at work, calls him Shakespeare and teases for spending downtime in the warehouse bathroom writing poems. DelMarcelle plays Tom as crusty and hard-bitten with few soft edges or refinements. He doesn’t have the grace or the ability to rebound that Amanda does. He hasn’t acquired his mother’s way of giving himself some peace or levity. He has no mirth. He finds his solace by going to the movies or in getting drunk on a nightly basis.

As I said, the air in the Wingfield apartment hangs heavy with anger, recrimination, and concern. Light or convivial moments are few. When Tom totally loses his temper at Amanda, DelMarcelle unleashing a torrent of rage that is unusual but justified and effective, genuine damage and hurt is done, and it is fitting Amanda stop speaking to her son. On Christy’s stage, the two characters have not had mutual fits of pique. They have said things they meant, the kind of things said in many a home on many a day, but this time in a definitive tone that closes doors and ends conversation.

Tension is rife. At Act II, the coming of the gentleman caller is more than a plot device. It is a necessary relief to a situation that doesn’t look as if it could be righted without some impetus from an outside source. Not just for Amanda, or for Laura, but for the Act II audience, the gentleman caller arrives just in time.

With Amanda having one of her most fervid wishes fulfilled, there’s a period of lightness, even frivolity, in the Wingfield home. Sunniness of sorts replaces gloom. Amanda is busy with plots and strategies to get both the apartment and Laura ready for the big visit. Tom is glad to be off the hook and out Amanda’s dog house. Only Laura has apprehensions, especially when she gleans the gentleman caller is someone she and Tom knew in high school, someone on whom Laura had the one crush of her life.

Sean Bradley is superb as the gentleman caller. His easy self-confidence alone contrasts him with the Wingfields. This is somebody who looks at life optimistically and is not angry or discontent in a way that sets him at odds with the world.

Bradley manages to portray a typical working class guy who has style, pride, social skills, and a will to improve himself via courses in public speaking and electronics that will serve him well in the nascent field of television. Compared to Tom, Jim is all congeniality, quick to adapt to a situation and sensitive to both Amanda’s attentiveness and Laura’s bashfulness.

With the aplomb of a natural diplomat, Bradley’s gentleman caller charms and impresses with his good manners, good nature, and his ability to assimilate into the Wingfield milieu without being critical or judgmental. Jim takes matters in his stride, and his stride is both elegant and human. He is a perfect guest and perfect potential beau. His thoughtfulness, talent for conversation, and ability to reassure and animate Laura are traits that will make him welcome anywhere. Bradley plays Jim’s qualities with a nonchalance that accent the caller’s ingenuousness and innate knack for fitting in. His ease is effortless to the point it doesn’t need the boost Laura provides when she praises Jim’s achievements in high school and admits she was enamored with him.

Amanda Schoonover’s Laura responds almost dreamily. The caller has earned her trust. He is someone who makes her confident, talkative, and alive to matters, such as romance, Laura usually tunes out, preferring to exist in her fantasy world of tiny glass animals and phonograph records of crooners and other performers of popular music.

Schoonover is an interesting Laura. She is less delicate or fragile than she is confused or defeated by demands to conform or to compete in life.

Physically, Schoonover’s Laura is sturdy and undaunted by being in the cold for hours as long as she doesn’t have to speak to anyone or accomplish a task that will evaluated or graded. She cannot be strong or practical like Amanda. She takes little delight in the idea of gentleman callers, even though her meeting with Jim goes well except for an unexpected hitch. Laura wants the security of the familiar and doesn’t mind the dependency that might come with it. Unequipped to compete or to forgo her ambitions and do what is necessary, like Tom does, she seeks the comfort of her mother, her brother, and their apartment. Laura is as intelligent as the other Wingfields, and as articulate, but she is easily discouraged or abashed, and unlike her mother and brother, cannot overcome her sensitivity and flat-out fear to take life as it comes and make the best of what is available.

Schoonover is more endearing because she isn’t a wilting flower as much as an adult who has the apprehension of a child and is easy to rattle or wound. The solidity Schoonover gives Laura makes it more pathetic that she cannot muster the fortitude to take a course in business school or consider employment without getting sick or so flustered she cannot function.

Laura doesn’t have her mother’s acquired finesse or Tom’s sarcastic wit and jaundiced view of life, but when she relaxes, she is honest and cordial. Because of Jim’s friendly approach, Laura is able to respond to him and entertain him. They speak of intimate things, each of them sharing hopes and dreams. They dance. Laura shows Jim her collection of figurines, her glass menagerie. Hints of maturity are in the sultry St. Louis air as well as hints of romance. The scene between Schoonover and Bradley exemplifies the mood and memory Williams has Tom promise his play will conjure. It is a lovely passage of Christy’s production that flows beautifully and takes on an elegiac quality. You want to bask in the warmth these two young people create, especially after all the acrimony you’ve witnessed between Tom and Amanda. The sad and abrupt ending to this soufflé of theater jars and disappoints even more than usual. A relationship between Jim and Laura seems meant to be. Schoonover and Bradley choreograph and play their scenes that well and that sweetly.

Carla Belver shows all sides of Amanda. You see the “gorgon” to which Tom refers and the girlish Southern beauty who attracted more gentleman callers than there were days in the calendar to meet with them.

Like Schoonover, Belver has opted for a realistic approach. Airs are reserved for company. Amanda says life is serious business, and Belver plays her as if she believes it.

Sometimes you feel sympathetic towards Amanda. When she instructs her children about table manners, she is trying to be polite while correcting habits she finds unsuitable. It’s DelMarcelle’s Tom who turns Amanda’s gentle admonishments into a contretemps that gets more and more personal and vicious as it escalates.

Then there are times she indulges in direct assault. Her concerns about Tom losing his job by being too tired to fulfill his duties at the warehouse are an example. Amanda can be a nag and forget her children are grown and expect to regarded as adults.

Belver can be crestfallen when Amanda realizes Laura has deceived her and wasted money the Wingfields don’t have to fritter away. She can also show genuine elation, whether because Tom has finally surprised her by granting her wish to invite a gentleman caller or because she sold a magazine renewal to a woman who was cranky about being awakened at 7 a.m. to be reminded of her lapse.

All traits Belver gives Amanda blend into a complex and ultimately likeable character that persuades the Act II audience she has the interest of the entire family at heart and has to hide her softness and love of fun to motivate her underachieving children and make sure everyone eats and can afford a roof over their heads.

Belver lets you see Amanda’s determination and her use of humor as a way to ridicule her uncooperative and disrespectful son into taking positive action that will improve everyone’s life.

Charlie DelMarcelle is flinty and brittle as Tom who shows few of the soft edges one might expect from a poet.

DelMarcelle’s Tom is generally exasperated by Amanda whose fate he doesn’t consider, probably because he regards her a survivor who can fend for herself. Laura, Laura’s welfare and well-being, is the only element in Tom’s life that triggers his tenderer side. Laura is the main reason he hauls himself out of bed and to work each morning.

Belver’s Amanda instigates a lot of the conflicts between and her son, but it is DelMarcelle’s loud and temperamental reactions that cause tension and make it appear that the total relationship between mother and son is one of enmity. There are times when DelMarcelle’s Tom looks at Belver’s Amanda with disgust or true loathing.

Except for one sequence when Tom is trying to write, it’s hard to root for this Tom. Even when he is justified in talking back or telling Amanda to stop harping, DelMarcelle’s Tom has malice in his voice and an expression that suggests he is on the brink of violence. For all of Belver’s constant nagging, you tend, even when irritated by her severe tone, to side with her and want Tom to at least tolerate his mother more. Or shrug her off.

Christy’s production is taut and involving. It benefits from its tenor of reality and soars in the well-conceived and well-orchestrated segments when Laura is alone with her gentleman caller.

Daniel Boylen’s set shows Amanda’s taste and style while also showing how fine pieces can become threadbare, frayed, and shabby when resources are not there to keep them fresh after years of use. James Leitner’s lighting is delicate and gives the sense of scenes that are being recalled from the past. Leitner helps Christy set moods, introduce the influence of the nearby dance hall, show the time of day, and answer the question of where Moses was when the lights went out. Frankie Fehr’s costumes make sense, but she may have gone a little overboard with Amanda’s party dress, a relic from her trunk of ball gowns.

“The Glass Menagerie” runs through Sunday, November 23, at Act II Playhouse, 56 East Butler Avenue, in Ambler, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $34 to $28 and can be obtained by calling 215-654-0200 or by visiting



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