“Glass breaks so easily. No matter how careful you are.”

This afternoon, I took a break from arguing about privacy and the latest LJ kerfluffle to go to the Mark Taper Forum to see The Glass Menagerie. For those unfamiliar with the play, it is one of Tennessee Williams’ classic Southern plays. It is a four-character memory play narrated by Tom Wingfield about his family, in particular, his mother Amanda and his sister Laura. Here’s the synopsis from Wikipedia:

Amanda’s husband abandoned the family long ago. Although a survivor and a pragmatist, Amanda yearns for the illusions and comforts she remembers from her days as a fêted Southern belle. She yearns especially for these things for her daughter Laura, a young adult with a crippled foot and tremulous insecurity about the outside world. Tom works in a warehouse, doing his best to support them. He chafes under the banality and boredom of everyday life and spends much of his spare time watching movies in cheap cinemas at all hours of the night. Amanda is obsessed with finding a suitor for Laura, who spends most of her time with her collection of little glass animals. Tom eventually brings a nice boy named Jim home for dinner at the insistence of his mother, who hopes Jim will be the long-awaited suitor for Laura. Laura realizes that Jim is the man she loved in high school and has thought of ever since. After a long evening in which Jim and Laura are left alone by candlelight in the living room, waiting for electricity to be restored, Jim reveals that he is already engaged to be married, and he leaves. During their long scene together, Jim and Laura have shared a quiet dance, and he accidentally brushes against the glass menagerie, knocking the glass unicorn to the floor and breaking its horn off. When Amanda learns that Jim was engaged she assumes Tom knew and lashes out at him. At play’s end, as Tom speaks, it becomes clear that Tom left home soon afterward and never returned. In Tom’s final speech, as he watches his mother comforting Laura long ago, he bids farewell.

There are two aspects to this play: the story and writing, and the acting. First, this isn’t a story that particularly grabs me. It is a play with some excellent lines, but it is like the south it portrays: languishing and slow. That may be the intent, but it wasn’t a pace that I particularly liked. These problems are more pronounced in the first act than in the second: I found the second act much better than the first. I’ll note that this isn’t my first time seeing the play: the Pasadena Playhouse did it back in 2000.

But this is a classic. It will be done and redone for ages, irrespective of my personal take on the story. What makes or breaks the production is the acting and the directing. Here I’m glad to say that the Mark Taper Forum succeeds.

This production, directed by Gordon Edelstein (who is artistic director of the Longwharf Theatre), does create the languishing South of these characters. It creates some interesting impressions—for example, I got the distinct impression that Tom might be gay. I also found how the director chose to highlight the menagerie interesting. I recall the Playhouse had a special curio cabinet for the menagerie; this play had them on a glass underlit table with the typewriter. This made them a lot harder to see, and meant there had to be more effort from the actress playing Laura to show how she was disabled both mentally and physically.

The actors, oh the actors, they brought this alive. Leading the charge was Judith Ivey as Amenda, who just brought the faded Southern aristocrat to life. This is a performance that won her rave reviews at the Roundabout. You could see that faded spark, and the desire she had for her daughter to succeed where she didn’t (and I found it telling there were never mentions for the son to similarly marry well). Patch Darragh played Tom, the narrator and leading male character. He made it clear through his acting that he was annoyed with this family and his mother, and was just aching to get away to a new life. My favorite, however, was the damaged Keira Keeley as Laura. Although slow and quiet, you could just see her joy when she was interacting with her gentleman caller. This caller, Jim O’Connor, was played by Ben McKenzie with unexpected charm and grace. In short, the acting ensemble was excellent.
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

Turning to the technical side: the sets, which were designed by Michael Yeargan, were simple: tables, chairs, and bed in front of a scrim that created the aging apartment. This was supported by Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design which created the faded color wash that just established the mood. The costumes, by Martin Pakledinaz (subject of a recent Downstage Center), had just the right look for the age, and also added to the fade. The sound, by David Budries, was suitably non-intrusive and clear. Christopher J. Paul served as stage manager, and Robyn Henry as Production Stage Manager.

Speaking of sound: Please, please, please… when they ask you to turn off your cell phones, turn them off or at least put them on vibrate. Each act we had at least 5 cell phones go off during the performance, combined with some loud squeals from the Sensenheimer headsets. These were extremely distracting. Oh, and while I’m chiding the audience… as Barbara Beckley of the Colony reminds us at every show: please don’t get up and start leaving before the actors have taken their bows. We know you want to get to your car, but the actors can see you and it is insulting to them. Show proper respect; if you want to walk out early, do it at the cinema.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Next weekend currently has no theatre, as it is Yom Kippur. The last weekend of September brings “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre. October is currently more open, with “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East ticketed for October 9 (although we are working on changing that to October 8, so we can go see FDR” with Ed Asner at CSUN on October 9)*. We are also seeing Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 30. I should note that October 23 will be a Family Gaming Night at Temple Ahavat Shalom. November will see “Bell, Book, and Candle” at The Colony Theatre on November 13; Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum (November 10–December 22, Hottix on sale October 19, potential date November 21); and Amadeus” at REP East (ticketed for November 27). December will bring Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson (November 23–January 2; Hottix on November 2; planned date December 11). It may also bring the Leslie Uggams one-woman show “Uptown, Downtown” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.
[*: Yes, we know Ed is taking FDR” to the Pasadena Playhouse as well, but CSUN is so much closer to home]

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.