The set may be painted almost entirely white, but there’s nothing pallid about the final mainstage production of North Carolina Stage Company’s ninth Season. Since its premier in Chicago in 1944, The Glass Menagerie has become a classic of the American theatre. That’s easily said, but the current production at N.C. Stage, a collaboration with partner-company-in-residence, Immediate Theatre Project, reminds one of why the Tennessee Williams masterpiece continues to be held in such high esteem.
First of all, it’s a wrenching story, and the emotions are raw and often extreme — even for Williams, who went on to make a career of writing about the various forms of desperation (in such plays as A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Camino Real). The play is also Williams’s most autobiographical, and in the character of Tom, the play’s guilt-ridden if often smirking narrator, one can feel the playwright’s real-life anguish — and it gives the play a riveting personal urgency.
But the play is also distinctly American. Like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which dates from roughly the same period, The Glass Menagerie is in essence a tragedy about how a generation of American parents crippled their children with false dreams. Williams’s play, however, deals with a particularly fraught subset of those dreams: what might be called (with all ambiguities intact) our “Southern Heritage.”
It is also, appropriately, a “memory play.” In it, a young man, Tom, speaks to us directly and shows us the events leading up to his desertion of his mother, Amanda, and sister, Laura, some years before, in the midst of the Great Depression. But while the guilt-ridden atmosphere hanging over the story is certainly Tom’s, the real emotional center belongs to Amanda, a faded Southern Belle whose desperation to retain some shred of her former dignity makes her insufferably controlling and passive-aggressive. Most of Amanda’s desperation she displaces onto Laura, a shy young woman so crippled (both physically and emotionally) by her mother’s pretensions, that she can do little more than sit at home, listen to old phonographs and polish her collection of glass figurines.
Many have tried, but few have achieved what Callan White achieves here as Amanda. She manages at one and the same time, and throughout the play, to express the selfishness, vanity and delusion of Amanda, as well as her underlying desperation and wounded spirit, with the result that we both hate her and love her — or at least pity her. Moreover, White gives Amanda the dominating and, one is tempted to say, statuesque presence the character requires. This anchors the production in a kind of realism, despite its presentational frame: We feel we recognize this woman. While one suspects that Amanda’s offhand remarks about negro servants are more jarring to us than they would have been to Williams’s contemporaries, this only serves to intensify the unsettling contradiction at the heart of the character and the play. When Amanda’s scheme of finding a proper husband for Laura ends in disaster, White makes us feel Amanda’s inner devastation, even as we see all the ways she’s brought it on herself.
As Tom, a role he has played for ITP before, Willie Repoley likewise presents a complex mixture of savory and unsavory qualities. Tom is finally just as selfish as Amanda, though in a different way. As both a closet homosexual and an aspiring writer, he longs to escape a warehouse job and the emotional trap of his family — which is easy to understand, given how Amanda dominates him — but his own selfishness prevents him from seeing how that escape will remove the last shred of hope for his mother and sister. Even his older self (as narrator) seems capable of little more than a bittersweet, self-indulgent regret. In other words, he is truly his mother’s son.
Repoley approaches the role with his usual precision, poise, and subtlety, and if he never quite “goes to eleven” on the emotional scale, the plays doesn’t seem to suffer for it. At the other end of that emotional scale is Laura, played by Alaska Reece Vance, an actor I’ve not seen in town before. Where Amanda is histrionic and excessive, Laura shrinks away fearfully from life, and Vance certainly captures Laura’s helpless passivity. But there is a trap here that Vance does not entirely escape: if Laura is too much of a possum in the headlights, then she begins to disappear from the action.
Witness the longest scene of the play, in which Laura finally begins to open up under the attentions of Jim, the “gentleman caller” whom Tom has invited to dinner at Amanda’s insistence. This is the famous glimmer of hope every tragedy offers before the final catastrophe, and it is meant to be magical and sweet. But Vance speaks so haltingly that the magic is hardly given a chance to accumulate. As the well-intending Jim, Andrew Livingston (whom audiences will remember as Joe in N.C. Stage’s production of Angels in America) does his best to pump life into the scene, but his efforts come off as a bit clumsy, and the scene drags on.
It doesn’t help that the scene is so dimly lit one can’t see the actors’ faces clearly. The director’s intentions here are doubtless correct: The candlelight is supposed to enhance the scene’s magic. But it just doesn’t work, and this is perhaps the only significant misfire in the show. Otherwise, Hans Meyer’s direction reveals an admirable clarity and restraint that allow his actors to do the work the play requires. The staging is remarkably streamlined and well-integrated, with none of the directorial caprice one sees all too often scrambling a play’s signal. What comes through here is a truly gripping, conflicted and finally, human tragedy that, despite its universal themes, is also distinctly American.
As has been more and more the happy trend at N.C. Stage of late, the show will likely come close to selling out, so reserve your tickets early.
The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Hans Meyer in a co-production of Immediate Theatre Project and North Carolina Stage Company. Featuring: Andrew Hampton Livingston, Willie Repoley, Alaska Reece Vance, Callan White. Stage Manager: Catori Swann. Lighting Design: Rus Snelling. Sound Design: Hans Meyer. Property Design: Jessica Tandy Kammerud. Costume Design: Deborah Austin. Performances Wednesdays through Sundays, through June 19, 7:30 p.m. (2 p.m. Sundays), at N.C. Stage, 15 Stage Lane, downtown Asheville. Tickets: $25. Reservations: 257-4500 or visit http://www.ncstage.org.