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Civic Theater's The Glass Menagerie

Director and actors try to forget everything they thought they knew about an American classic

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2009-01-16


Tackling a play like Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie means shedding a lot of baggage.

The story of the Wingfield family, stuck in somewhat emotionally and economically desperate circumstances after Mr. Wingfield abandons them, is one of the most famous plays by one of the most famous American playwrights of the 20th century. “Everyone knows the play,” says Chris Colcord, director of the Civic Theater’s production of The Glass Menagerie, which begins its run on January 16. “It’s taught in so many high schools and college courses… It just becomes iconic.”

Colcord adds that one of his first acting experiences in college was a scene from the play, but that initially, he didn’t really appreciate The Glass Menagerie. “I look back and I’m kind of embarrassed,” he says. “When I read it when I was a kid I totally dismissed it. I thought there was nothing going on there, that it was completely over-rated.”

Of course he kept running in to it over the years, and found his admiration grew. Still, that youthful arrogance came in handy when he began working on the Civic Theater’s production. “I said ‘I’m not going to do a second of research on this. I’ll just pretend that this script is brand new, and we’ll tackle it like that.’ I had to develop selective amnesia with it.”

“Whenever you get a play that’s a classic, I think it intimidates you a little bit, and you feel you have to approach it with this sort of reverence,” he continues. “I don’t think that’s a very healthy way to tackle a play.”

Colcord found that approach allowed him to see things about The Glass Menagerie that he had never really recognized before. “When you discover a play that’s been imitated so many times, it’s sort of shocking to go back to the original source,” Colcord says. “The thing I was so pleasantly surprised to discover was just how odd a play it is. The characters are all very strange. There are some mean parts in it, and I’ve told the actors not to pull any punches.”

Like Colcord implies, whether or not you know The Glass Menagerie well (or Streetcar Named Desire, or Cat On A Hot Tin Roof), there are certain Tennessee Williams character-types that have sort of been assimilated in to the culture. They pop up so often in film and stage that they’re almost instantly recognizable. And there’s a danger in that for actors, who run the risk of delivering a Tennessee Williams caricature, something predictable, rather than a fully realized character.

The Glass Menagerie has one of the best examples of a Williams-type in American drama — Amanda Wingfield, the overbearing mother of Tom and Laura. She’s one of Williams’ classic “Faded Southern Beauties.” “It’s a plum role for women who no longer play ingénues,” says Molly McCray, a veteran of Fort Wayne stages who plays Amanda. “It’s one of those famous, really meaty, wonderful roles.”

It’s also a pretty complicated and nuanced role, something McCray says she didn’t realize until she really got to work with the character, and had to look beyond the “Faded Southern Beauty” stereotype. “I think Amanda is so complex that I don’t think I’d be able to figure her out in the time I have with her,” says McCray, who for inspiration drew on memories of her grandparents’ experiences during the Depression. “I guess my idea of her was more two-dimensional. I just thought she was a lunatic. And she is. But just life and circumstances have caused her to try to hold things together the best way she can. I think she’s tap-dancing all the time, trying to figure it out, and every time she thinks she has something figured out it falls apart and she has to start all over again.”

Tom and Laura, Amanda’s children, are two other distinctly Williams’ characters — Tom (Jon Kasunic) the frustrated young man trapped by circumstance and Laura (Leah Heet) the seemingly fragile young woman almost too delicate for the real world.

Leah Heet (her mother once played the role of Laura) says she tried to find Laura’s strength. “People compare her to her collection of glass pieces, but I don’t feel Laura is as fragile as everyone else thinks she is,” says Heet. “She’s stronger on the inside than she appears.” She also thinks Laura is pretty smart, despite having dropped out of school because of illness. “I think she’s very afraid to let people know that she thinks, she observes all the time.”

Laura’s big moment comes when brother Tom has Jim, his colleague from work, home for dinner. Jim turns out to be the same person Laura was in love with while at school. The two share a moment, but Jim already has a girlfriend. “ I don’t think that he necessarily broke her heart,” Heet says. “She’s been kissed. She’s had that experience. I think it gives her a little more courage.”

The relationship between Laura and her brother Tom is complicated. At times, it seems all that unites them is a common irritation with their mother. “It’s kind of mystifying,” says Jon Kasunic, an IPFW theater student who was recently in Two Rooms. “It seems like he doesn’t care about her at all. He says he loves her, but there’s not much evidence in the way it’s written.” Kasunic says they worked to show more of a connection between Tom and Laura, even though Tom’s circumstances don’t make it particularly easy to connect with anybody. After Mr. Wingfield abandoned the family, Tom was forced to take on the role of bread-earner and “man of the house”, and he’s chaffing against it. “He’s shackled to this life that he doesn’t want to be a part of,” Kasunic says. “He feels he’s always stuck doing something that he doesn’t want to be doing.”

Jim (Jordan Collier), Tom’s friend from work and Laura’s “gentleman caller” (as Amanda puts it), is almost a comic breath of fresh air in the midst of the Wingfields and their seething resentments. He’s a “go-getter,” a friendly guy who, as Jordan Collier puts it “always thinks ‘I can change the world because I have a smile on my face.’”

Like the rest of the characters, Collier discovered there was more to Jim that what he first thought. “When I first read it, I thought ‘this guy’s a jerk!’ But he’s not. He’s just very open, very blunt. He’s big in to self-improvement, and wants to share that with the world.”

Jon Kasunic, says Colcord’s “pretend it’s all brand new” approach took some of the pressure off. “I stopped thinking ‘You’re going to be compared to everybody who has played this character.’ The best thing for me is to divorce myself from that, to be true to the play, but to take 60+ years of people’s expectations out of the equation and start fresh, like you’re doing something new.”

The Fort Wayne Civic presents The Glass Menagerie

Fridays, January 16 and 23 at 8 pm
Saturdays, January 17 and 24 at 8 pm
Sundays, January 18 and 25 at 2 pm

Arts United Center
303 East Main Street

Box Office: 424-5220

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