By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Hans Fleischmann
Original Score by Daniel Knox
Produced by The Hypocrites
Playing at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage
“I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
A Wondrous Re-Imagining of a Great Play
The Glass Menagerie is one of my favorite plays. Anyone who’s ever loved a novel or play strong enough to approach an adaptation – or “re-imagining,” as this current Hypocrites’ production is – with the tremulous fear that the film or production might fall short of one’s own imagined expectations of the work – anyone who knows this feeling – knows what it was like for me to see my first production of The Glass Menagerie as directed by Hans Fleischmann. How often these adaptations or re-imaginings fall short – abysmally short! And how disappointing it is to leave the screen or stage feeling that your cherished love has been tarnished by the deranged mind of some talent-less hack. If only you could wipe the experience (now seeping into your own imagination) from your memory – forever!
And yet: sometimes the re-imagining, while not meeting your expectations, defies them; reveals your familiar love in a new light; introduces to you new, intriguing questions and images; and, unexpectedly, fulfills – or exceeds – your expectations in ways not even you imagined it could. Thankfully, Fleischmann’s The Glass Menagerie is just such a re-imagining – and one whose creative ingenuity behooves you to see it.
The story of The Glass Menagerie is probably familiar to most. Fleischmann’s staging, however, adds new layers to the “memory play.” Tom Wingfield (played by Fleischmann himself) hasn’t escaped the Wingfield household as unscathed as he is usually depicted. Fleischmann’s Tom is a homeless wanderer: the illusions he promises to the audience are now complicated by the delusions against which he now fights – a losing battle he becomes more and more immersed in as his memory play unfolds.
Aside from the re-framing and alternative staging, however, the story is virtually the same. Amanda Wingfield (Kate Buddeke) is the overbearing mother who tries desperately – if that’s not too light a word – to orchestrate the success and happiness of her socially and physically crippled daughter Laura (Joanne Dubach). Her plan: why, a gentleman caller, of course! But while Tom begrudgingly accedes to his mother’s request to bring Laura home a beau (Jim, played by Zach Wegner), he’s already devising his own future. His plan: escape from the coffin of his current life and seek out adventure.
I don’t think I can praise this production enough – and, believe me: my usually critical nature would have shown no mercy had this production let me down. Thankfully, as I’ve written, it does not. For one, Williams’ poetic script is full of imagination and feeling: every word he layers significance, and every moment simmers with tension and pathos. His characters, drawn from his personal life, are complicated and beautifully written – and this cast of competent and talented actors brings them richly to life. Buddeke soothes out Amanda’s harsh edges to make her an honestly desperate mother whose dreams for her own life – having wilted into sad, hoary fairytales – now depend on her vicarious hopes for her daughter. Dubach finds a unique and rounded portrayal to the awkward Laura, giving her scene with Jim a sincere humor and a seamless arc. Wegner, whose portrayal of Jim was the most delightfully surprising for me, brings out a depth and understated sorrow in Jim that gives his character a tragic aspect I had never before considered. And Fleischmann’s Tom – though I thought he could have brought out a bit more of Tom’s bitterness, particularly in his rant in scene three – casts a quiet tenderness on Tom’s character that is especially touching if one considers that this is the Tom from the present stepping back into the past of his memory.
Even the scenic design and musical score – two aspects I sometimes find gratuitous – work wonderfully toward the telling of the story. Grant Sabin (Scenic Designer) and Brontë DeShong (Properties Designer) fill the back-alley setting with colorful, translucent glass and tuck the Wingfield kitchen away by putting it on its own little stage behind an opaque curtain – further emphasizing the “memory play” aspect of Tom’s retelling. Daniel Knox’s original score adds just the right amount of gentle feeling to accent the performances without rendering them schmaltzy. His musical contribution was neither obtrusive nor extraneous, but fit seamlessly and indispensably into the world of the memory play.
Additionally, I would be remiss if I did not also mention the lighting and projection design, both of which serve as essential components to the creation of the play’s world. Matt Gawryk (Lighting Designer) and Alexandra Garfinkle (Asst. Lighting Designer) inspire awe with their coordinated use of colors and glass, imbuing the world of the stage with somberness and magic to capture the shifting moods of memory. And Paul Deziel’s projections do well to avoid distracting our eye while they give us an inviting glimpse into the 1930s with images of advertisements and even some clips from The Black Pirate (1926) during the intermission – all of which give us insight into the dreams and ideals of the various characters. A splendid, immersive experience throughout!
The oft-quoted line from Thoreau, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” has all but become a hackneyed, reflexive notion today, where it is repeated with a blithely sagacious air that tells of how little we truly appreciate its wisdom. By staging The Glass Menagerie as he does, however, Fleischmann prevents us from missing this truth in The Glass Menagerie: Tom, homeless and mad, neither escapes his past nor his desperation, both of which continue to haunt him on whatever “adventure” in which he seeks to absolve himself. Indeed, we depart Tom’s memory deeply moved by the sobriety of this truth. And as all great Art speaks truth into our lives, I dare say Fleischmann’s The Glass Menagerie offers something truly great to Chicago theatre – something one ought not miss.
Reviewed: 7 February 2016
Playing at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage, 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $36, with $15 for Students and $18 for Groups of 8 or more. For tickets and information visit www.The-Hypocrites.com. Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. through March 6th. (NOTE: there will be added performances on Thursday, February 11th; Thursday, February 18th; and Thursday March 6th, all at 8 p.m.) Running time is 2 and ½ hours with one intermission.