Theatre Review: THE GLASS MENAGERIE by The Phoenix Theatre

Take a piece of glass, clear glass. You can see right through it. Take a second piece of clear glass and put it a few inches away from the first one. Add another, and another. Although each layer is clear, the image gets slightly distorted the more layers that you add. If the pane of glass was, instead, a drinking glass, or a glass figurine, the refractions would be magnify, even if each individual piece were completely transparent on its own. The more you add, the more information you accumulate, the less clear the final result is. This is just one of the takeaways from Tennessee Williams’s classic play, The Glass Menagerie, artistically redone by The Phoenix Theatre at SALT Performing Arts in Chester Springs, running now through February 2nd.

Written in 1944, The Glass Menagerie takes us inside the memory of Tom Wingfield, ostensibly representing Williams himself, as he narrates and participates in two days with his mother, Amanda and his sister, Laura, in 1930s St. Louis. Amanda, a classic “southern belle,” is preoccupied with finding a “gentleman caller” for Laura, who, in addition to be being painfully shy, has a physical “defect.” Tom, meanwhile, longs to escape, be it nightly to the movies, or forever, to a different life.

Hannah Brannau and Seth Reich; Photo by Ashley Smith of Wide Eyed Studios

Under the direction of Michael Hajek, this version of The Glass Menagerie has elements of timeless nostalgia. A 1950s-era telephone hangs in the parlor. The sofa is from the ‘30s, but the kitchen set is from the ‘60s. Aside from the references to the trends of the time period in the text, this story could happen anytime, anywhere. Seth Reich (who is also Phoenix’s Artistic Director) plays Tom as a complex dreamer, hampered by his own conflicts of motivation and loyalty. He does not feel obligated to take his the role of “man of the house,” vacated by his father who abandoned his family 16 years earlier, though he struggles with admitting his own dreams. Amanda (Catherine Ogden) is as charming as can be, but teetering on the edge of a breakdown stemming from her own disappointing history. Hannah Brannau, a member of Acting Without Boundaries, a theater group for actors with physical disabilities, shines as Laura, who blames her “defect” for her inhibition, but its source appears to be more hardwired than that.  And Ryan Cassidy returns to The Phoenix Theatre as the charismatic Jim, the purported “gentleman caller.”

The entire ensemble works well together, sharing heightened emotions, yelling at and embracing each other, taking the audience through a lifetime of travails in two days. Stephan Moravski’s set contains the family within the borders of a claustrophobia-inducing apartment, the perimeter of which is clearly the “outside.” When Tom is not in the scene, he’s observing through the diaphanous curtains that hang on either side. A brief piano movement, composed by Reich, underscores “bookmark moments” in Tom’s recollection.

Seth Reich, Catherine Ogden, and Hannah Brannau; Photo by Ashley Smith of Wide Eyed Studios

A framed mirror hangs in the living room, which we are told is the father’s portrait, but it’s used to reflect the characters and even the audience. There’s a striking moment where Tom steps behind the mirror and faces the audience, a brief touch that elevates the text and compartmentalizes Hajek’s vision. For Laura’s part, she is mesmerized by her collection of tiny glass animals. They ground her when her life starts to run adrift, and their fragility echoes her own. We, the audience, don’t need to see these creatures; they are reflected in her eyes. The Phoenix Theatre has taken this classic play turned it into a glass sculpture where each facet offers a frail layer of understanding which leaves us, in the end, knowing less for knowing more.

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