Watching the classics means watching performers.
You don't watch Hamlet to find out if he kills the king. After all, you read the play in high school, and you've seen it on film or video with Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh and Ethan Hawke. So as far as the story goes, there's nothing to learn. But you watch the latest actor playing Hamlet in order to discover his take on Hamlet's madness (entirely feigned, partly true, genuine from top to toe?), his failure to act (cowardice, overthinking, skepticism?), or his anger at his mother Gertrude (disguised lust, shocked prudery, a simple sense of decorum?). And you watch Gertrude for clues to her hasty remarriage (ambition or love?), Ophelia for clues to her character's death (accident or suicide?), and so on and so forth.
Taking your seat for a classic play, you should feel as much suspense as when you sit down for a new work. What surprises, what shocks, lie in store over the next two hours? And will at least one of the performances be so good as to seem — dare I use the word — definitive?
The same is true for modern classics. Settling in for the Acorn Theatre production of The Glass Menagerie, I felt excitement and a little dread: excitement over the best possibilities, dread over the worst. I've seen at least four versions of the play live and on video; I've taught the script repeatedly in theater survey courses and playwriting workshops; I even prepared a lecture once on the sources of Menagerie in Tennessee Williams' own life.
But a fine performance outweighs all preparation; good acting is such a powerful thing, it hypnotizes and seduces and disarms with its truthful magic. So, worrying just a little, I waited for Tom Wingfield's first monologue and the appearance at the table of mother Amanda and sister Laura. Like an opera lover eager to hear his 16th Tosca, I was ready for this experience. And I wanted it to be a good one.
In one out of four cases, it was. Marguerite Bennett Folger was terrific as Amanda, the beleaguered, intrusive woman who's trying to keep her family together during the Depression in St. Louis. But Brad Minus as son Tom was exasperatingly slow-moving and much too macho; Michele McCarty as mildly disabled Laura had too few colors in her palette, and Rob Glidden as Jim, though initially winning, was eventually a half-step away from persuasive.
In a case like this, where several performances are out of focus, it's hard to know how much responsibility to place on the director. So let's say that Levi Kaplan moves his characters around the stage well. But if three of these actors represent Kaplan's vision of the play, his staging leaves a lot to be desired. There were moments in the production — moments when Amanda/Folger wasn't on stage — when I was just plain bored.
Now, before I continue, I should recap a plot many readers may only vaguely remember. Amanda Wingfield lives with her son Tom and daughter Laura in a small apartment in St. Louis. Tom is a dreamer who writes poetry on shoeboxes and yearns for a life of adventure far from home. Laura has a painful inferiority complex and is as fragile as the little glass animals she treasures. Amanda's a pushy, chattering, well-meaning busybody. One day she prevails on her son to invite a "gentleman caller" to dinner — someone who might fall in love with Laura and thus solve the problem of this delicate flower's future.
Tom invites his friend Jim, not knowing that Laura was infatuated with him in high school and is terrified of such a paragon. Most of the play's second half is a duet between Jim and Laura, a duet full of tenderness and surprising courage. When Jim leaves the house finally, something important has changed.
Now, about Folger's performance: Her Amanda is unlike any other that I've seen. She plays Amanda not as a displaced Southern belle — the most common interpretation — but as a quick-tempered, judgmental, but basically compassionate urbanite whose memories of her Mississippi past are receding ever further into the mists.
This Amanda can be frightening and overpowering when she's angry at her children, and seems to think of reality as a kind of heavy, sagging old tapestry that will utterly collapse if she doesn't support it with constant chatter. There are a hundred sides to Folger's Amanda, and you have to watch her every moment lest you miss one or 50.
The same can hardly be said of the other performers. Minus plays Tom as if he were George Raft in a prison movie or a gumshoe in film noir: terse, deep-voiced, ready to punch out his mother if she dares raise her voice at him (he makes fists during their arguments), and about as dreamy as a couple of tensed biceps.
McCarty, meanwhile, keeps playing the same few emotions: forehead-wrinkled suffering, sensitivity to the point of tears and then unexpected vivacity. But Laura's not simple — she's just shy and inexperienced, and should have an interior life as rich as or richer than anybody else's.
Glidden as Jim almost makes us believers. There's a glad-handing businessman side to him, like something out of Sinclair Lewis, and we're delighted to meet a character with, of all things, a sense of humor. But finally he begins to come off as cartoonish, and at a key moment with Laura, when he should be acting romantic, he instead seems revolted, as if he's doing her a painful favor. Still, I sense that there's a fine comic actor in Glidden, just waiting for the right part. I'll be curious to see what this promising thespian does in the future.
I'm not sorry I saw this Menagerie; at the least it alerted me to the talent of Marguerite Bennett Folger. Her bio in the program suggests she's acted many times before, but this is the first time I've seen her on stage, and, simply, there should have been others.
After all, our area doesn't boast many middle-aged actresses of talent, and I can think of a bunch of plays that might have benefited from her skill. I hope that other local theaters will think to call on her in the future. Amanda's a rough part, but Folger finds the key to it, and the beauty.
One other thing that I'm sure of: There will be other Menageries. The play at its best is a small masterpiece of poetic realism, and with only four characters, it's always attractive to cash-strapped producers. If Tom and Laura and Jim didn't quite work here, still, next time they might.
Of course, live theater is a spectator sport. You never know what miracles you might witness this time, or the next.
And where the classics are concerned, hope springs eternal.