Friday, February 28, 2014

The Glass Menagerie—Portland Actors Conservatory—SW Portland


"A Shattered Rainbow”

This early classic from Tennessee Williams is directed by Brenda Hubbard and is playing at their space at  1436 SW Montgomery St. through March 2nd.  For further information go to their site at www.actorsconservatory.com
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This was the first important play of Williams’ and put him on the map as an important playwright, becoming, in time, one of our greatest American writers.  It is semi-autobiographical and began as a one-act play called The Gentleman Caller.  It soon blossomed into a coming-of-age story about his early years in St. Louis during the 1930’s.  By the time of his death, in the early 80’s, he had become an icon of American theatre.


Like many great artists, his personal life was less than idyllic, battling with addictions and the reality of being gay.  But the depicting of his characters, especially women, in his plays, was a goldmine for an actor.  Blanche, Maggie the Cat, Stella, et. al. are all actors’ dream roles.  But the beginnings were Amanda and Laura from The Glass Menagerie.


The story is a memory play, where fact and fantasy are mixed, to create an illusion of reality.  It begins with the older Tom, as the Narrator (Tim Stapleton), describing and commenting on the events of his early life, when he worked in a shoe warehouse, just as his writing juices were beginning to flow.  We then meet his dysfunctional family in his younger self (Jonathan Ladd), his overbearing mother, Amanda (Beth Harper, Producing Artistic Director of the school) and his painfully, shy sister, Laura (J’ena SanCartier).


Young Tom is the bread winner, aspiring to be a writer, but in a dead-end job.  He yearns to be gone, like his father, a salesman “who fell in love with long-distance.”  His mother is demanding, overpowering and insufferable.  She adds to their meager income by selling subscriptions over the phone for a woman’s magazine.  His sister, has a game leg, purported to be taking typing lessons, listens to old records and is absorbed with her glass animal collection.  This is the main reason he stays around.


But Tom has his outlets, as his frequents bars and gets drunk, has dalliances with other men (Otniel Henig) and goes often to the movies, being transported to worlds of adventure, which he yearns for.  Finally an opening presents itself, as Amanda tells him he can leave as soon as Laura is married.  So, he soon finds a “gentleman caller” for her in his best friend at work, Jim (Matthew Ostrowski), who he invites to dinner.


Jim has an abundance of self-confidence and, during a private meeting with Laura, tries to encourage her to follow his example.  He does seem to win her over as, unbeknownst to him, she had a crush on his when they were in school.  He teaches her to dance, shares gum with her and even gives her first kiss.  But he has a secret which will destroy the whole family’s illusions of what could be.  I won’t be a spoiler and give the ending away, though.


The reality of Williams’ life is that he did run off to greener pastures and did reconcile with his mother, whom he took to the opening of the play.  Legend has it that his mother enjoyed the production but never saw the connection between herself and Amanda.  The fate with his real-life, older sister, Rose, is not as upbeat.  She was more than just “painfully shy” but had a mental disease and was confine to a institution for the rest of her life.  Tennessee was haunted by this aspect of his decision to desert her in his early life and, thus, this beautiful, heart-wrenching, poetic play.


Hubbard, an icon herself in theatre, has expertly laid the groundwork for this moving drama.  With simplicity, she has transported us back to another era of our history.  It feels like we are intruding by watching them emote, which adds a misty bond between them and us.  The Scenic Design (Tim Stapleton) and Lighting (Jeff Forbes) and Costumes (Jessica Bobillot) all add immensely to this “magic” show of disguises and illusions.


Harper was born to play Amanda.  She, herself, is also an icon in Portland theatre and more than proves herself worthy of giving us a view of what acting is all about.  That, blended with her teaching methods in her school, are an example of damn good theatre.  Stapleton, also a pro, as the Narrator, gives us a view of a thinly disguised, Williams himself.  Much of the poetry of this piece is in his speeches and he delivers them beautifully.  The fact that they choose to divide the character of Tom and the Narrator into two separate roles, I think, is a marvelous touch.


SanCartier as Laura is quite impressive.  This is a difficult role, as you must ride that fine line between shyness and “disturbed,” but she does it very effectively.  And Ostrowski, as her gentleman caller, is terrific and his rich, deep voice is a real asset to this role.  Between the two of them, and their obvious talent, their scene together is one of the highlights of the show.


Ladd, as the younger Tom, fares less well.  Although he seemed to be going through the motions of the character, I usually didn’t believe he was fully vested in the role.  His rages seemed to be a bit empty and his body language lack the urgency the character should have.  But, being a student, he still has plenty of time to improve which, in this educational atmosphere, I’m sure he will succeed.


I recommend this show but it only has this weekend to run, and last night was almost full, so best get your tickets soon.  And, being a school, I’m sure they would appreciate any donations you could afford.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.