It gets exhausting to say over and over of older, often-performed plays, "But it's so relevant today!" or "It transcends time!" or "Oh, but it still matters!"
Okay. Yes. We all know The Glass Menagerie is a good play. Even a masterful play. Playwright Tennessee Williams’ 1944 breakout hit, which earned him lasting fame, is still performed ad nauseam in theaters across the country and around the world. And we won’t ask, “Why do it?” because the answer is simple: It’s good and it matters.
So the question quickly becomes: “Is it done well?”
This is the thought in everyone’s heads as they sit down at the “tennis court seating” at Teatro Paraguas, with chairs rising on either side of a small, intimate stage.
For those who don’t remember
The Glass Menagerie
from high school English class, the plot is outwardly simple. Aging former Southern belle Amanda Wingfield lives in a small apartment in St. Louis with her two 20-something children, Laura and Tom. Amanda’s husband abandoned the family abruptly years before, but his picture still hangs on the wall and she still wears a wedding ring. Laura is a beautiful but painfully shy and anxious girl with a pronounced limp. Tom is a brooding and mysterious warehouse worker with big, secret dreams. Amanda asks her son to bring home a “gentleman caller” for his sister, in hopes of marrying her off comfortably. Tom invites over his friend Jim, who seems like an excellent choice, until he suddenly doesn’t anymore. Laura is mostly preoccupied—that evening, and in general—with her “glass menagerie,” a collection of small glass animals on a tray in the parlor.
The director and designer of the production at Teatro Paraguas, Robert Benedetti, is the founder and artistic director of the New Mexico Actors Lab, which presents this performance. He told SFR in the lobby before the performance that he chose this play because he already had the actors. He felt actress Suzanne Lederer was perfect for the faded Amanda. Building from there, he cast Robyn Rikoon as the peculiar Laura; Geoffrey Pomeroy as her brother Tom; and Vaughn Irving as slick Jim.
Benedetti’s instinct about Lederer was spot-on. Sashaying around the stage, enamored with her own voice, Lederer’s Amanda is at once infuriating and endearing, embracing the complexity of the character. She babbles on for far too many pages about basically everything, whether it’s what happens to your internal organs when you slump or how her parents ran out of chairs for all her gentleman callers. She is a regular Mississippi Delta Polonius.
At the same time as you want to duct tape her mouth shut, though, she is undeniably likeable. In all her fondness of herself, she simultaneously cares deeply about her children; she especially nurtures Laura, of course, discouraging use of the word “cripple” and encouraging her to cultivate “charm or vivacity or charm” in place of her physical disability. “Still water runs deep,” she says proudly of her quiet daughter.
In slight contrast to Lederer’s effortless performance is a sometimes-halting turn from Pomeroy. With an impressive CV, it certainly isn’t that Pomeroy doesn’t have the chops—he does. But we’re not quite sure of what we interpreted as his motivation, or occasional lack thereof. Tom is undeniably mysterious and brooding. With the patriarch gone, Laura and Amanda use his absence as an excuse to cling to one another; Tom uses it as a paddle to row further and further away. Pomeroy’s Tom, however, employs more snark than we were prepared for. He is more cutting than cut, more irritated than troubled. His speech feels more modern than does that of the other characters, and he goes from mechanical matter-of-factness to explosive anger without much reason that we could see brewing in him. He is a little too slick, a little too easy with words. This could, of course, be a matter of a direction or characterization that others find simply a unique choice, but it gave us pause.
His chemistry with Robyn Rikoon as Laura, however, is very nice. The siblings are obviously fond of one another, and while Tom is younger than Laura, he does his best to protect her, and she depends on that. A particularly nice moment comes when Tom sits in a chair, and Laura comes behind him, drapes her arms around his neck, and rests her chin on his head. As the play goes on, and especially in Tom’s later monologues, we hear more of his fondness for Laura, and their connection is an effective one.
It did take us a bit to warm to Rikoon’s Laura as well. There is this strange inflection that some actors affect where they lilt the end of their sentences upwards when it is not necessarily a question; stereotypically a British thing, it has worked its way into the speech of anyone trying to sound proper. We caught Rikoon doing this a few times (which could have been distracting simply because it’s a personal pet peeve). She is peculiar, indeed, with nervous facial expressions and clipped phrases, but perhaps not urgent. Some lines seem recited.
When potential suitor Jim enters, though, everything changes. Jim, portrayed here by Vaughn Irving, blows into the Wingfield house like a one-man band into a funeral wake. He’s jolly and cajoling and charismatic, pulling out chairs for the ladies and offering sticks of gum. Gosh, what a chum!
Jim, whom Laura revered in high school particularly for his performance in The Pirates of Penzance, is still he perpetual performer. He forcefully brightens the scene, even as the lights literally go out. When the apartment loses power, Amanda pitifully mutters of the power company: “Very considerate of them to let us get through dinner before they plunged us into everlasting darkness.” Yikes.
While Tom and Amanda disappear to the kitchen to wrangle with the fusebox, Irving and Rikoon are able to finally act together—and wow, are we glad they are. Rikoon’s Laura blossoms in the presence of Jim. She is still shy, still undeniably and strangely Laura, but she speaks more easily. She smiles. She is beautiful, and she is almost charming. When Jim offers her a stick of gum, she awkwardly breaks off half of it. She smiles coyly as she retrieves her high school yearbook to show Jim his own picture. The pivotal scene between the two is nicely done.
And, of course, there is endless relevance written right in; so much relevance it gets weary. Amanda is trying to sell subscriptions to serial magazines to boost the family’s meager income—anyone with a friend who sells anything from home (Nail art! Essential oils! Health drinks!) will recognize immediately the friendly banter followed by sales pitch. The self-conscious violin music that plays intermittently throughout the show is as perfectly timed as the sentimental piano notes that always came on during a tear-jerker scene in Full House or Family Matters. As Tom and Laura reminisce about high school and have the heart-to-heart they never had as teenagers, everyone nods in recognition: “Yep, I had basically that same conversation with my high school crush in a bar when we were both home from college.”
So, of course this play is relevant. It always will be. And it will always be good, because it’s Tennessee Williams. We could pontificate about the symbolism of glass, the lasting entrapment of the blue-collar middle-class, the hopelessness of disconnection and desperation. But other people have said those things already, and better. The question here remains: Was it done well?
In our opinion, yes. Make a point to catch this production.
Note: Hania Stocker takes the place of Vaughn Irving as Jim during the June 3 and 4 performances. Based on his portrayal of O’Brien in the Santa Fe Playhouse’s 1984, we are confident he'll do well.