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'Glass Menagerie' even better than day at the zoo

By Nikolai Slywka

Laura and her gentleman caller are sharing a moment...shhhhh.
My friend and I couldn't repress a few snickers early in the second act of The Yale Repertory Theater's production of The Glass Menagerie. The first act had been unnervingly long and filled with acting that seemed to intentionally avoid finesse. The cast members seemed unwilling to deliver their lines in tones that weren't either lifelessly flat, blandly glib, or shrill and histrionic.

Too often they seemed to be acting for the sake of acting. The production seemed both moribund and smug; it was as if
it had resigned itself to the notion that attempts at creating a durable fiction on the stage can only be naive and sentimental and that the best theater can do is draw attention to its own theatricality. And so my friend and I couldn't help expressing some distress and disappointment when in the beginning of act two, the hollow, portentous delivery of the on-stage narrator (Wayne Maugans) seemed to signal a continuation of the first act's apparent weaknesses.

By the end of the night it was clear that our initial reaction had been misguided. This fascinating, challenging play, directed by the multiple Obie Award-winner Joseph Chaikin, uses the gambit of a slow first act and at times insipid or overwrought performances in order to force the audience to distrust what it's seeing and to question the nature of the social roles the characters inhabit. This production isn't concerned with exposing the artifice of the theater, but with showing how deeply and destructively artifice and role-playing are embedded within real conditions. In particular, it focuses on how these dynamics operate within what have become two staples of American culture: the free-spirited young man who rejects his domestic situation because it seems to smother his poetic inclinations and the ambitious young narcissist who self-absorbedly strives to fulfill his entrepreneurial inclinations.

The frustrated, young poet Tom doubles as the play's narrator. Tom works at a warehouse to support his overbearing mother (Laura Esterman) and his eccentric, crippled but mobile sister, Laura (Kali Rocha). In the evenings, he writes now and then at his typewriter but seems more than anything to enjoy escaping from his mother to movie theaters and bars. After a first act filled with quarreling and the increasingly strident presentation of the mother as a cant-ridden, manipulator of her children's emotions, the play moves
to the main event, the appearance of entrepreneurial young Jim (Jay Snyder), a long-sought "gentleman caller" for Laura.

The sim-ple plot of The Glass Menagerie is enriched by the distrust we come to feel for Tom in his status as both narrator and character. This is perhaps the most convenient position anyone could hope to find himself in; like being both judge and plaintiff in one's own case, it's a situation ripe for self-serving distortions of the truth and for false, but indisputable alibis for treachery. By the end of the performance, we come to sense that what appeared in the play's first half as an unduly exaggerated and over-acted presentation of an oppressive mother may be a result of Tom's selective and flattering construction of his past. The play then seems not so much to be about a sensitive, romantic son victimized by a nasty mother, as it is about the mean-spirited and ultimately poorly-wrought fabrications of a mediocre artist seeking to render his family in as poor a light as possible to excuse himself for his weaknesses.

Complicating Tom's position as both narrator and character is his claim in the first scene that "the play is memory." The simplicity of this formulation veils what the play eventually confirms to be the confounding complexity and slipperiness of memory. Even in the seemingly all-controlling position as the narrator of a slice of his own remembered history, Tom cannot conceal how cheaply he behaves when, at the play's end, he betrays his mother and sister. Although he doesn't have the self-awareness or strength to admit it, his poetic imagination is a selfish, tawdry mixture of Hollywood myths and puerile fantasies of adventure.

In the beautifully acted and staged after-dinner scene that comprises most of the performance's second half, Jim initially stands as the play's simplest, most familiar, and likable character. His exuberance about his ambitions, his guileless infatuation with Laura, his sincere fascination with the glass collection referred to in the play's title, all work to earn our affection. But like Tom, he eventually reveals himself to be selfish and self-absorbed, and he too comes to betray both Laura and her mother. In inviting and then disrupting our sympathy for Jim and Tom, the play complicates without entirely disparaging the American figures of the yearning, free-spirited poet and the striving young business man. Both cultural roles seem to foster and even sanction a disruption of domestic affections.

Although we were quite wrong in our early reactions to the play, my friend and I had enough good sense to appreciate from the start this production's brilliant set. Scenic designer Alexander Dodge wraps the stage within a huge rose whose interior faces the audience. In its monstrous scale, it undermines the rose's typical association with beauty and affection and conveys the oppressiveness that Tom contrives to locate in the domestic and feminine world. This grotesquely exaggerated and threatening rose has its compliment in Laura's beloved collection of beautiful but all-too vulnerable glass figurines.

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