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Hopes & dreams

IPFW production finds new elements in The Glass Menagerie

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2014-10-04


Jeff Casazza, Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre at IPFW, tells a story about when one of his mentors met the great American playwright Tennessee Williams. It was during a dress rehearsal for a production of Streetcar Named Desire. Casazza’s friend was directing, and right before the lights came down, Williams walked in and sat right next to him in the theater.

Casazza’s friend was, to say the least, terrified. But during the first scene change, Williams offered up an unexpected compliment. “Williams leans over and says ‘you got my humor, baby. That Blanche DuBois, she’s the funniest character I ever wrote’,” Casazza recalls.

Anyone familiar with Williams’ work and willing to accept Blanche DuBois as “funny” would probably agree on two points — (1) it’s a pretty peculiar personality that would find her so; and (2) she doesn’t have a lot of competition in the Williams canon.

But the humor is there, Casazza explains. It’s a pretty dark sense of humor, often arising from seemingly terrible characters behaving terribly and saying terrible things, but it’s there. It’s even in The Glass Menagerie, which Casazza is directing for IPFW’s Department of Theater as part of the school’s 50th anniversary.

Granted, The Glass Menagerie is hardly a laugh riot, and Casazza isn’t turning it into one. Williams’ highly autobiographical “memory play” about the remnants of the Wingfield family — mother Amanda (Darby LeClear), daughter Laura (Paige Matteson), and younger son Tom (Brock Ireland and Brock Graham, playing older and younger versions of the narrator)— living in genteel poverty was the playwright’s first “hit” back in 1945.

In the story, Amanda’s husband left the family sixteen years before, leaving Amanda to raise Tom and Laura in greatly reduced circumstances. Tom, a young man in his early 20s, is barely holding the family together financially by working at a shoe company. He’s restless, feels stifled and bored. His older sister Laura is fragile and terrified of the world, taking comfort and consolation in her collection of glass animals. And their mother Amanda is the “faded southern beauty,” an iconic character type that Williams practically invented. She’s overbearing, histrionic, and sometimes cruel.

The story is framed by Tom’s memories of one of the last times he was with his family, awaiting the arrival of Jim (Ben Bercot), a co-worker and high school acquaintance of Tom’s, for dinner. Amanda’s hope is that sparks will flare between Jim — “the gentleman caller” — and 24-year-old Laura.

A classic of American dramatic theater, The Glass Menagerie themes of memory, dwindling hopes, fading expectations… well, as we said, not a lot to laugh about. But Casazza has seen a lot of adaptations of The Glass Menagerie — it’s easily one of his favorite plays, he says — and as he describes it, the play’s reputation as one of the great American dramas has meant directors and casts overlook some elements of the story, and one of those is humor. He’s seen some very heavy-handed approaches to the story, and realized they didn’t quite work. “I think the play is funny,” he says. “We looked at certain speeches, certain monologs, and thought ‘do these things have to be tragic? What’s underlying this?’ That dark humor is in there, and I think it’s one of the things that can make tragedy even more effective.”

Another element about The Glass Menagerie that Casazza thinks many people miss is the character of Amanda Wingfield. Yes, Amanda is overbearing and a little crazy. You wouldn’t want her for a mother. But Casazza thinks she’s gotten a bad rap. “Amanda was an abandoned woman during a time when ‘abandoned women’ weren’t regarded with much sympathy,” he says. “I’m not saying she’s a saint, but she was able to keep her two children alive for 16 years without any money and without any help. That’s a pretty powerful woman. She has to be able to get them ready for life, so she has to push them, because she’s so afraid of what happened to her happening to them.”

Casazza adds that Amanda is almost always played as older than he thinks the character really is. After all, she was a southern debutante in the late teens or early 20s, probably married in her late teens, and her oldest child Laura is 24. “Amanda would only be maybe 43. She’s young enough to think ‘if I didn’t have these children, I would have a life of my own. I could easily be the debutante I used to be.’ In the play, every character is tragic; their lives are not going the way they want them to. With the focus on Tom and Laura, everyone sort of forgets about Amanda, and I think that’s false.”

Brock Ireland, Brock Graham, Darby LeClear and Paige Matteson are all IPFW students; Ben Bercot (who plays Jim) is an alum of the program. Nick Lubs composed the score for the production. Corey Lee served as lighting and production designer, and helped Casazza realize some of the “theatrical” elements he had envisioned for the play. “When Williams first wrote the play, he wasn’t ‘Tennessee Williams,’ he was just some guy who wrote a play, so he didn’t have much say in how it was produced,” Casazza says. “In his stage directions, he called for ‘projections’ on screens — a picture of the father and other images. We’re able to use projections for this production in ways Williams probably never imagined.”

“The theatricality that allows the actors and designers to explore all these themes (in the play) is very exciting to me,” Casazza adds. “All the characters are dreaming of something better, living in their own fantasy worlds, and we’re able to highlight that.”

As mentioned earlier, The Glass Menagerie is the second show in IPFW’s 50th anniversary season. There are five shows this year as opposed to the usual four, all produced before at IPFW, and one from each decade. Casazza detects a theme for the season — the plays all deal with memory in different ways, and the passage of time. “It would be great to say that’s what we intended,” he laughs. “But it just worked out that way.”

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IPFW Department of Theatre presents The Glass Menagerie

October 3, 4, 9, 10, 11, at 8 p.m.
October 5, 2014 at 2 p.m.
Sign Language Interpreted Performance – Sunday, October 5, 2014
Williams Theatre
IPFW North Campus

$5 IPFW Students/ High School Students/Children under 18; $15 Adults; $13 Seniors/Faculty/Staff/Alumni; $11 Groups of 10 or more; $10 Other College Students with ID
Children Under 6 Will Not Be Admitted
Patrons are encouraged to call in advance to reserve their tickets. Please arrive early. Latecomers will be seated at the discretion of management or at intermission.

Purchase Tickets Online at ipfw.edu/tickets
By phone or in person: 260-481-6555
TTD: 260-481-4105

Box office located in the Gates Athletic Center, Room 126, Mon - Fri 12:30 - 6:30 p.m.

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