'Menagerie's' tricks miss mark

Thursday, April 17, 2003

"The Glass Menagerie" is a play that has always flaunted its own, well, playness.

The protagonist and narrator, Tom, tells you at the beginning that this is a "memory play," and even tells you how certain symbols will be used during the evening. It takes a little longer for an audience to start suspending its disbelief.

And that's OK. Tennessee Williams, the author, was a master. He could pull it off.

English Alternative Theatre's production Wednesday of "The Glass Menagerie," unfortunately, wasn't quite so masterful.

The director, Paul Stephen Lim, attempted to add a couple of layers of artifice. The result is distraction from fine performances by the actors and a distillation of the play's themes into a single dimension.

Tom, the play's protagonist (and Tennessee Williams' alter ego) is frustrated in his ambition. He wants to see the world. But he must work in a warehouse to support his mother, Amanda (frustrated in her marriage and ambitions for her children) and sister Laura (frustrated by her mother's hopes for her).

To satisfy his mother, and set himself free, Tom brings home a "gentleman caller" for Laura -- Jim, who's frustrated in his attempts to fulfill expectations for success. The play ends with most of the characters experiencing frustration.

Lim added extra elements. He split the character of Tom into two parts -- young, "closeted" Tom and old "out" Tom, who is remembering the play's events. Old Tom is hanging out at an Amsterdam gay bar. The bar's other "patrons" snicker at key lines in the play, raise their glasses at others.

They call a lot of attention to themselves, and away from the main actors, but they don't add anything to our understanding -- except, perhaps, to remind us that Tennessee Williams was gay.

Amy DeVitt nails her part as Amanda Wingfield, a faded Southern belle turned drama queen mother. Jeremy Auman plays Jim O'Connor as a bit more of an oaf than you'd expect, but he pulls it off. Jacqueline Grunau appears to be a fine actress, but she seemed to be too vivacious to be the mousy Laura Wingfield. Set design by Kaye Miller was appropriately seedy.

You get to pay attention to those performances in the second act, when the bar patrons quiet down. By then, however, it's too late.

"The Glass Menagerie" is running 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, at the Lawrence Arts Center.