Flint Rep’s ‘Glass Menagerie’ stakes out new ground
FLINT, Mich.–Even when you think you know a show well, a clever director can create a new perspective on it.
Director Michael LLuberes takes the oft-performed Tennessee Williams classic The Glass Menagerie and puts a new cast on it for the production at Flint Repertory Theatre.
The program tells you that the show, ostensibly set in the 1930s, takes place “now and then,” plenty of anachronisms are thrown in to ensure the audience doesn’t get stuck in the past, nor is tempted to believe that the show is no longer relevant or current.
The stage—which is set up in the backstage area between Flint’s two regular stages—is bare at the beginning, with the flies providing a backdrop and the stage stairs making up the flat’s back stoop.
When Michael Lopetrone introduces himself as Tom, the narrator of the show, it is he that begins to put furniture on the stage. In this production Tom isn’t just narrator, but he appears to the audience as director and stage manager, doing all the scene changes by himself and sometimes stepping into a scene to move the other actors around or change where they are looking or how their hands are placed.
Both in and out of the scenes, whether as character or narrator in this memory play, Lopetrone gives Tom a nervous energy that is sometimes explosive. He is intense, desperate for the audience to understand what Tom escapes–even Tom himself. There is pain, anger and a desperation that cannot be calmed.
The story that Tom narrates appears simple at first. He is working in an unfulfilling job to support a mother and a sister. His mother, Amanda, is controlling and stuck in the past where she was the daughter of wealthy planters, not poverty stricken in the city as she is now. His sister, Laura, is “crippled” and painfully introverted and subject to anxiety attacks, which her mother typically dismisses as indigestion.
Because Laura seems unfit for achieving independence, Amanda is eager for there to be “gentleman callers” who will marry and take care of her.
Amanda is played by the indomitable Janet Haley, a master of physical acting and stage presence with which she fully imbues Amanda. Sometimes the way Amanda is played, she is so unlikeable that you are relieved when she leaves the stage. Haley’s Amanda is overbearing and oblivious to the real needs of her children, but she is fascinating and Haley leaves you wanting more of her, not less.
Amanda projects herself and her needs onto her children, as dependent on them as Laura is on her. Haley gives her a bearing that makes her a tragic, not merely pitiful, creature.
Haley and Lopetrone are powerhouses who dominate the stage in this performance with compelling performances that often leave the audience hanging on the edge of their seats in focused silence.
Meredith Deighton who recently portrayed such physical strength and mental confidence as #13 in The Wolves at Flint Rep, is now a fragile flower whose trembling is easily apparent and whose speech is slow and halted. There are those who portray Laura as merely shy, but Deighton goes beyond that to show us a young woman who, while having a huge, loving heart, is severely impaired. Her physical and mental disabilities keep her from functioning in a world where she is not taught appropriate coping skills nor where her limitations are even correctly identified.
The gentleman caller, Jim, doesn’t appear until late in the show, and Scott Anthony Joy creates an immediate contrast with the Wingfield family. He is eagerly anticipated, but a complete outsider that the family can connect only superficially with the exception of a few intense moments between Jim and Laura.
Joy carefully constructs a young man who is eager and may be disappointed with how life has been, but who has none of the inner turmoil and passion of the other characters.
There are many highly effective moments where Lluberes has his characters speak in low tones that are presented as whispers or highly intimate exchanges. While Lopetrone and Haley have the ability to ensure even the lowest of exchanges are projected and can be heard throughout the staging area, Joy lacks this same skill. A crucial scene between him and Laura is lost to most of the audience even though they were all leaning forward, eager to catch each word until finally one audience member exclaimed in frustration, “I can’t hear them.”
There are many clever touches in this show that is staged in a very minimal fashion. When Amanda speaks of her jonquils (known to us Northerners as daffodils), the stage has been bedecked with them, overflowing in an almost exaggerated fashion, much like Amanda’s memory.
While it is jarring at first to be thrown out of period, the songs Laura plays on the Victrola speak to her inner life and her dreams in a more eloquent fashion than she is able to, and one is tempted to believe that the Karen Carpenter songs playing throughout the show had been written to tell her story.
This “Menagerie” is one that is creatively and profoundly directed. Lluberes mindfully creates each moment, guiding each actor’s choices so that they feed into a singular vision that once again proves why this show is a classic one, one that speaks to the human condition on both a micro and macro level.
For while it is about individual struggles that we all share, it is also about our changing country and who gets left behind when society changes and old ways of life are lost.
Led by Lluberes, this show’s artists and technicians tell a story that is touching and heartbreaking, and far more relevant and timely than even Tennessee Williams could expect so many decades after he first penned this unconventional memory play.