Arts & Theatre

‘The Glass Menagerie’ returns to its roots

A Noise Within’s classical approach to the Tennessee Williams classic resonates with the outsider in all of us.

The Glass Menagerie” debuted last Saturday at A Noise Within Theatre in Pasadena. This adaptation relates to the theme of their 2018-2019 Season, ‘Let Me In,’ which focuses on narratives surrounding outcasted characters and their struggles with independence and acceptance.

“The Glass Menagerie” is an evocative autobiographical play that is often credited with launching playwright Tennessee Williams to stardom. Through narrator Tom Wingfield’s memories, viewers meet his dysfunctional family members; Tom, whose dream of becoming a poet keeps him afloat amidst the reality of his warehouse job, Laura, his shy older sister who, despite being almost 27, has nothing more to her name than a high school education, and Amanda, the household’s matriarch whose idyllic view of her younger years and children prohibit her family from confronting the present.
Life in the Wingfield home is disrupted when Tom invites a coworker, Jim, to dinner. Amanda sees this as an opportunity for her daughter Laura to finally gain the confidence necessary to meet and date men like she once did in her youth. However, Amanda fails to realize that it is her own preoccupation with her long-gone glory days combined with her overprotective nature that truly prevent Tom and Laura from prospering in life.

“The Glass Menagerie” was first produced at A Noise Within during the theatre’s 1997-98 season under the direction of Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. Geoff Elliott starred in that production as Tom Wingfield, but in this production takes on a new role as a director, collaborating with an intimate cast of four resident artists at the theater. Deborah Strang reprises her role as Amanda Wingfield, Rafael Goldstein as Tom Wingfield, Erika Soto as Laura Wingfield, and Kasey Mahaffy as Jim O’Connor.

Strang’s performance as Amanda Wingfield is especially noteworthy, as she does absolute justice to the faded southern belle, an iconic character type in Williams’ work.
“I want to share Deborah’s Amanda with audiences. She was wonderful 20 years ago, but probably too young. She is now the perfect age and her sensibilities as an artist and the life experience she has gained will combine to give our audiences a very special performance in this key role,” wrote Elliott in the production’s press materials. 
While performances from other company members proved moving as well, certain artistic choices fell victim to cliché and overlooked the complexity of the characters Williams created.   

Audience members are supposed to resonate with Laura and how she falls victim to exacerbating personal circumstances. Despite Laura’s physical disability, her low self-esteem is what genuinely cripples her. This is especially apparent during a pivotal moment when Jim (Kasey Mahaffy) reflects on him and Laura’s shared time in school together. He reveals to her that no one in their classes noticed her limp despite Laura’s persistence that it outcasted her. In other productions of “The Glass Menagerie,” this moment demonstrates the limiting power of the mind. However, Soto’s exaggerated limp across the stage detracted from the power of this revelation, which made Laura’s physical condition seem as detrimental as the disability she had manifested in her own mind.

While there were many beautiful moments of legitimate connection between Jim and Laura, Mahaffy’s portrayal of Jim as a self-absorbed ex-football star prevents audience members from falling in love with him the same way Laura does. It even tempts us to take the advice Jim gives Laura, which is pivotal to Laura’s character arch, with a grain of salt.
Nevertheless, A Noise Within’s production of the Tennessee Williams classic is distinguished by Elliott’s classical interpretation.  
This classical lens is further respected by lighting designer Ken Booth, whose understated, dim lighting throughout both acts emphasizes the memory aspect of the play and creates a vignette into the 1930s Southern home that shaped one of America’s most famous playwrights.

After personally bearing witness to a string of poorly done contemporary renditions of American classics, A Noise Within’s “The Glass Menagerie” was a needed palette cleanser. Elliott returns to a focus on Williams’ 1944 vision and affirms this production as a must see this season.

"The Glass Menagerie" runs through April 26th at A Noise Within. Tickets start at $25 and are available here.

Correction: Elliott’s last name was originally misspelled and has since been updated with the correct spelling.