The Glass Menagerie: Clear-cut gem opens Everyman season

(Clinton Brandhagen as Tom and Deborah Hazlett as Amanda. Photo by Stan Barouh)

As a high school student, I remember being tasked with reporting on Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. My take, as a tenth grader, was one of bewilderment. Why, I wondered, does this family seem to fight over so many trivial things? In retrospect, I now understand what all the fuss was about. To truly grasp the underlying tension with the characters in the play, one first has to experience life.

 Clinton Brandhagen as Tom and Deborah Hazlett as Amanda. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Clinton Brandhagen as Tom and Deborah Hazlett as Amanda. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Looking back is what animates the characters in The Glass Menagerie, the current production at Everyman Theatre. Deftly directed by Everyman theater founding artistic director Vincent M. Lancisi, The Glass Menagerie is a memory play. Every scene is a whisper for the past, and each moment builds to the inevitable, heartbreaking conclusion.

The show opens with the narrator – a once aspiring poet named Tom Wingfield – dressed in Jack-tar apparel, recalling events from his life as a young man in Saint Louis in 1937. In vignettes, we see Tom as he was, working to support his hen-of-a-mother Amanda, and his sister Laura, a hopelessly timid, handicapped girl who lives in a world all her own. After yielding to pressure from his mother, Tom brings a co-worker named Jim home to meet his sister. What follows is an evening that compels Tom to leave his floundering family forever. Forever, that is, except for the images, which continue to haunt his reverie.

Sophie Hinderberger as Laura. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Sophie Hinderberger as Laura. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The Glass Menagerie first opened in Chicago in 1944 to generally enthusiastic reviews. From there, the show moved on to Broadway where it won the 1945 New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Loosely based on Williams’ own family, the play evolved from one of the author’s short stories which he re-worked into a screenplay for MGM. When that script was rejected, Williams again re-worked the piece; this time into a play for the stage.

Almost 70 years later, The Glass Menagerie continues to be recognized as one of the finest plays ever written.A revival on Broadway is now being staged in a limited engagement. Aside from that production, the Everyman offering is the only professional production presently running in America.

Clinton Brandhagen and Deborah Hazlett – both members of Everyman’s resident acting company – portray Tom Wingfield and his mother, Amanda.

Brandhagen’s Tom was mostly measured with his stark narration – carefully capturing Wingfield’s transitory existence. Conversely, Brandhagen keenly built Tom’s re-encounters with the ghosts of his unsettled past from one of mere annoyance to a fruitless, frustrated crescendo. By the time he said, “The more you shout about my selfishness to me, the quicker I’ll go…” it was hard to blame Tom for finally walking out the door.

In playing the part of Amanda Wingfield, Hazlett steps into a very long shadow. Several Broadway veterans (including Martin Landau), recall the late Laurette Taylor, who originated the role, as giving the best acting performance they ever saw. Fortunately, Hazlett did a good job in bringing this nettlesome character to life in a way that was both irritating and pitiable. It is hard to capture both qualities while playing someone so controlling, to the point where she tells her adult son how to chew his food and her daughter what to wish for on the rising moon. But Hazlett does so gracefully, in true “Blue Mountain” style.

Sophie Hinderberger as Tom’s sister Laura and Matthew Schleigh as her gentleman caller are both returning to the Everyman stage.

Hinderberger plays the mildly handicapped Laura like a bird with a broken wing. Though written as plain and painfully shy, Hinderberger created a character whose beauty shines through the prism (and perhaps prison) of Laura’s glass menagerie. It was a gripping performance and one not to be missed.

Matthew Schleigh as Jim and Sophie Hinderberger as Laura. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Matthew Schleigh as Jim and Sophie Hinderberger as Laura. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Jim – the glad-handed shipping clerk who left his golden years behind when he graduated high school – was chipperly portrayed by Matthew Schleigh. Schleigh’s upbeat effort balanced well against the undercurrents of his fellow actors’ dysfunctional household. Together, this cast made for one spellbinding evening of theater.

The set design by Daniel Ettinger remained true to the exacting instructions laid out in the script notes by Tennessee Williams, from the fire escape entryway to the portrait which hangs over the Wingfield home like the Sword of Damocles. Jay Herzog’s lighting design meticulously captured the dream-like mood.

A nod to costume designer Julie Heneghan for recreating the era in its combination of muted tones and flowery finery, and for coming up with a jarringly memorable dressing-for-dinner look for one of the players.

Background music punctuated the dialogue throughout the play. As Tom tells the audience in his opening monologue, “In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings.” To that end, Chas Marsh’s sound design worked reasonably well, with the exception of an odd piano interlude during an early family squabble.

The Glass Menagerie may be somewhat dated – with its faded Southern belle and son who runs off to sea – but its human drama is timeless; a real gem to open the Everyman season. Even high school students should grasp one of the morals I missed so long ago: You can never really leave your past behind.

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Everyman Theatre’s production of The Glass Menagerie has been extended and will now run through October 6. Running time is two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. The theatre is located at 315 W. Fayette St, in Baltimore, Maryland. Tickets and other information may found by contacting the box office at 410-752 -2208 or online.