Theater review: ‘The Glass Menagerie’ at HART

FAMILY MATTERS: Hanni Muerdter, left, as Laura, and Pam Elder as Amanda, star in Tennessee Williams' classic The Glass Menagerie. The two, in the roles of mother and daughter, are bewitching in their roles in HART's latest production.
FAMILY MATTERS: Hanni Muerdter, left, as Laura, and Pam Elder as Amanda, star in Tennessee Williams' classic The Glass Menagerie. The two, in the roles of mother and daughter, are bewitching in their roles in HART's latest production. Photo courtsey of HART

Like glass, beautiful things in life are fragile. Yet, once they’re broken, we understand how to let go. HART Theatre makes an undeniable impression with Tennessee Williams’ spellbinding memory play The Glass Menagerie onstage through Sunday, Oct. 8.

Tom Wingfield (played by Maximillian Koger) has grown restless, living in a cramped St. Louis apartment with his nagging mother Amanda (Pam Elder) and disabled sister Laura (Hanni Muerdter). Tom is a dreamer who yearns for something more. By day, he’s wasting away in a dead-end warehouse job and, by night, he washes his sorrows away with alcohol.

Since Tom’s drifting father is gone, the family relies on Tom’s support. Childlike Laura is under additional pressure because Amanda desperately wants to nab a gentleman caller for her. However, Laura — still playing with her glass animals — may not be ready for romance.

This play is a semiautobiography of Williams’ youth, so Tom narrates through poetic monologues. Koger’s version of Tom is hard-edged and largely unsentimental. While he’s very funny and delivers a copacetic performance, occasionally we wonder what it would’ve been like if he were more open-hearted. Playing it totally from within would have been the more courageous choice. In the end, we just don’t see enough passion and regret. However, the vitality of Tom’s tribulation is particularly well-captured.

This production contains two of the greatest performances we’re likely to see on any local stage for quite some time — Elder and Muerdter as mother and daughter. Elder is bewitching. She pulls the play along like a locomotive, each rumbling boxcar a different emotion. Elder’s so convincing and real — legitimately concerned about both her children’s futures. Most compelling is the brutality she throws at Laura upon finding out she’s not attending class anymore. How Muerdter swallows this makes us fall into the pressure cooker along with her.

Muerdter’s portrayal of the distant and mentally imbalanced Laura is worth the drive to Waynesville. She reminds us of Toni Collette’s brilliant performance in Muriel’s Wedding — except Muerdter is purer. She’s happily entranced with her collection of glass. In her mind, they’re tokens of dreams and loved ones. As long as they stay transparent, she’s able to admire their perfection. Muerdter is utterly heartbreaking when gentleman caller Jim O’Connor (David Anthony Yeates) inevitably collides with her.

The handsome Yeates pulsates, bringing forth a pretentiousness that serves the character well. Unfortunately, there’s too little depth between Koger and himself. Their scenes are fleeting, so their connection should be immediate. A subtle attribute of bisexuality was needed from Yeates since one can easily speculate that Tom secretly desires the date as his own. When Jim’s future plans are revealed, this explains Tom’s sudden decision at the end. Toying with both the brother’s and sister’s emotions would have added extra dimension to Jim’s character. Nevertheless, Laura and Jim’s candelabra scene is a shimmering — yet devastating — highlight.

This production, illuminated by prismatic light, is staged beautifully in the round. The direction by Steve Lloyd is marvelously attentive with gorgeous costumes by Julie Kinter that are reflective of a dreamy, bygone era. Being part of The Glass Menagerie is like being inducted into an elite club. There’s a certain shared look of poignancy between those lucky enough to work on this play.

WHAT: The Glass Menagerie
WHERE: HART’s Fangmeyer Theater, 250 Pigeon St., Waynesville, harttheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Oct. 8. Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. $25.68

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About Kai Elijah Hamilton
Kai Elijah Hamilton was born and raised in Western North Carolina. A poet, screenwriter and playwright, he is also a published film and theater critic. Hamilton is a creative individual with a wide range of talents and interests. He is an Award Winning Actor (Tom in "The Glass Menagerie") and Director ("A Raisin In The Sun"). He previously served as Artistic Director at Hendersonville Little Theatre and has a B.A. in theater and film from Western Carolina University. In 2016, Hamilton's play "The Sleepwalker" won a spot in the first annual Asheville National 10-Minute Play Festival by NYS3. His play "Blackberry Winter" was a finalist in the elite Strawberry One-Act Festival in NYC winning Best Short Film/Video Diary. Hamilton is also the author of the full-length southern-gothic play "Dry Weather Wind" which has been called "Important. Relevant to the issues in today's time, and beautifully written..."

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