The current Sutton Series production at Raleigh Little Theatre is Tennessee Williams' classic The Glass Menagerie, probably his best-known play and one of the most difficult to pin down. Williams' iconic Southern belle matriarch, Amanda, sees all too well the seeds of her departed husband in her son Tom, and she wonders what is to become of her daughter, Laura, whose handicaps (not just physical) make it difficult for her to enter fully into the adult world.
Director Patrick Torres brings a wealth of experience to the show, as he assistant directed a production of this work starring Sally Field as Amanda at the Kennedy Center. His production focuses on Amanda and her haunting ties to the past, but it is the future that damns her dissolving family, and leaves her as empty as a picture frame that holds no picture. Torres uses this theme in the stunning backdrop of the Wingfields' apartment, a multitude of empty picture frames. In a set designed by Elizabeth Newton, we saw the close, almost hemmed-in aspect of the Wingfield residence, as if the charm and gentility of Amanda's Old South were restricted by the cold reality of the Depression.
We saw The Glass Menagerie through the memory of Tom Wingfield (Jesse R. Gephart), who narrates the play. Tom understands his mother (played by Mary Rowland), but he also understands that he cannot help her, which is why he leaves. But no matter how far he goes, he cannot rid himself of the memory of his helpless sister, Laura (Kelly McConkey), or the fateful night he brought home the one man, James D. O'Conner (Ryan Ladue), who could shatter this family's already-fragile existence.
The play is set in the early 1930s, at the height of the Depression. Tom brings home a meager $65/month (!) from a shoe factory, which his mother tries to augment with various jobs of her own: an attempt to work in a "department store" or sell subscriptions over the phone. Laura is "too fragile" to work at any job; the mere thought of trying to work at anything upsets her terribly. She is far too introverted, with feelings of inferiority, to function in the real world.
I had a problem with this production from the start, but I could not put my finger on it for a while. Gephart played Tom a little too extroverted for my taste, but not overly so. Ryan Ladue was spot-on with Jim, who brings a cold-water slap of reality into Laura's life. I was pleased to learn that Mary Rowland was playing Amanda; I love to watch her work and she presented a dichotomy of gentility and desperation marvelously. I found that my difficulty was with Laura. I watched McConkey closely. She gave a studied characterization and she handled Laura's limp superbly; a gentleman behind me commented that he believed the actress was crippled, so convincing was her work. But what I never got from Laura was her fragility. Director Torres seems to have taken that aspect out of Laura's character; the result left Laura with an edge that was jarring. I wished to believe that a strong wind could crush Laura; instead, I got from her a character that was almost defiant, especially in the final moments of the play. These last few minutes of Tom's broken memories should linger, shimmer, and then dissipate. Torres' finale left me cold.
Director Patrick Torres and Raleigh Little Theatre bring a slightly different read to The Glass Menagerie. A veteran cast of Raleigh talent heads up a performance that has the requisite RLT polish. But it is possible that Torres has removed from the show an aspect that the text demands, and its lack was palpable. RLT's The Glass Menagerie is a good show. But I find myself wishing it had been a great show.
The Glass Menagerie continues through Sunday, June 26. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.