Sharon Spelman dominates Banyan Theatre's The Glass Menagerie. That's a good thing and a bad thing.
It's good because it's always a pleasure to watch a prodigiously talented artist at work. Spelman's Amanda Wingfield is a multi-hued Southern matriarch, striving heroically to keep her family together, and comically unconscious of the figure that she cuts doing it.
Some actresses play Amanda as a thoughtless monster whose life challenges have forced her to become oppressive and morally ugly. But Spelman has a milder view: Her Amanda is a prima donna, but one who's always thinking about the needs of her family, and isn't nearly as suffocating as son Tom makes her out to be.
The interpretation is entirely workable: Spelman embodies it with astonishing attention to detail, making every gesture count, from the very smallest to the grandest. Perhaps most impressive of all is the way she owns Tennessee Williams' language, caressing it, worrying it, manipulating and bending it until you'd think Williams wrote the lines with her in mind.
But that's a bad thing when the play's other three characters are on stage - because Mark Thornton as Tom, Sarah Stockton as Laura, and Brit Whittle as Jim don't perform on the same level as the astonishing Spelman, and the contrast interferes with our ability to absorb the play.
Sure, these other actors turn in solid, credible work. But Spelman seems to have 30 or 40 colors on her palette, while these others have just four or five, which they use repeatedly. The result is a bifurcated experience: When Spelman's speaking, we're in Tennessee Williams' St. Louis, circa 1938; when the others are center stage, we're in Sarasota, at the theater, right now. Spelman draws us into a dream; the other actors wake us up. Spelman seems to live onstage; the other characters are only visiting.
What we lose, therefore, are many of the virtues of Williams' play, from its examination of the way homo sapiens in an intolerable reality naturally find consolation in fantasy, to its sense of the fundamental ambiguity of human character. But first, a recap of the action: Amanda Wingfield is a woman whose husband has deserted her, leaving her in charge of two children, Tom and Laura. Tom, who supports the family by working in a warehouse, dreams of leaving the family behind in search of adventure; Laura, who's pathologically shy, spends untold hours with her collection of glass figurines, or playing old records on her father's Victrola.
Amanda, knowing that Tom wants to head off on his own, convinces her son to bring a friend home for dinner, someone who might fall in love with Laura and solve the problem of this young woman's future. Tom brings his buddy Jim; and in one of the loveliest duets in American drama, Jim and Laura share a momentous few minutes with each other.
When the play ends, something has changed for Laura: She'll never again be like one of her glass animals. But Tom doesn't know this; and even after making his escape, he's haunted by the memory of his melancholy sister. As for Amanda, we can be sure that nothing will ever stop her from trying to make the most of the life she's been dealt.
Now, if this plot were all there were to Menagerie, it would hardly count - as it does - as one of the greatest American plays. But there's a lot more going on here. For example, there's the fantasy-as-safety-valve theme: Each of the four characters, disappointed or worse with life's offerings, lives in a kind of dream.
Amanda exists in her memories of youth and gentlemen callers; Tom spends every evening at the movies or getting drunk; Laura has her glass collection and Victrola; and even sunny Jim lives in a reverie of the future, when his classes in radio technology and public speaking will finally reward him with the kind of success he once had in high school.
Another impressive aspect of the play is its presentation of characters subject to multiple interpretations. Tom is both justified in wanting to escape St. Louis and a brute for leaving his mother and sister unsupported; Amanda is an intrusive yenta and an altruist/martyr; Laura is a seemingly fragile flower who has the strength of a redwood when it's absolutely necessary; and Jim is a common egotist who's also the greatest gift adult life has ever offered Laura. Add the poetry of Williams' dialogue, the gentle humor and careful understatement, and the result is a work that, along with A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman and Our Town, is always counted as one of America's best. If you've never seen it onstage or in film, the Banyan version may be worth your time. But if you've seen it before - perhaps in the fine cinema/video version starring Joanne Woodward and John Malkovich - you'll probably be disappointed. What we want from new productions of familiar plays are new insights. In three of four cases, this Menagerie doesn't come through.
It's impossible to know how much of the trouble should be attributed to director Kent Paul. His staging is professional in most ways that matter, but why are three of four performances so simplistic? Richard E. Cannon's set is wonderfully right for an impecunious family enduring the Depression, and Cassandra Mockosher's costumes are usually fine, and in one case - the dress Amanda wears for Laura's Gentleman Caller - very funny.
A nice element of the production is Steven Lemke's sound design, which occasionally turns up mid-scene to provide needed atmosphere. Finally, Marty Petlock's lighting is an important feature of a play that's supposed to be crafted from memory. As for the famous scene wherein the lights go out - well, in this production, the lights go out. Then the action continues, just as it should, by candlelight.
Of course, by then the play is nearly over, and we're used to the idea that this is Sharon Spelman's Menagerie. That's fine when Amanda's on stage - as she often is - but also means that we don't find the Jim/Laura duet sufficiently touching, and that Tom's peroration doesn't move us as it should.
Still, we can be sure there'll be many more Menageries in years to come - so what this production lacks, the next one may provide. Or the next, or the next. This drama's going to be around.
As will the Gentleman Caller, the little glass unicorn, the haunted Victrola, and the typing chart from Rubicam's Business College.
As will the distressed, beleaguered - and immortal - Wingfields.