Review: 'Glass Menagerie' uneven, but still genius

IF YOU GO

“The Glass Menagerie”

■ What: A Florida Repertory Theatre production of Tennessee Williams’ play

■ When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday

■ Where: Florida Repertory Theater, 2267 Bay St., between Jackson and Hendry streets in downtown Fort Myers

■ Cost: $34-$38

■ Information: (239) 332-4488 or floridarep.org

The Florida Repertory Theatre tackled Tennessee Williams Friday night with an intense production of “The Glass Menagerie” that had its bright spots but never truly brought the playwright’s luscious prose alive.

Set in early 1930s, this classic is the story of a domineering mother trapped reliving her past glories, a workhorse son with big dreams but a dead-end job and a crippled daughter who hides from the world. The three revolve around each other in a tense and unstable orbit until a gentleman caller enters their lives and changes everything.

Williams’ first critical success is based on material from the short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass.” It was first produced in Chicago in December 1944 before moving to Broadway in March 1945 and winning Williams his first of four New York Drama Critic’s Circle Awards for Best Play.

“Menagerie” is described as a “memory play,” which means the style and content is inspired and shaped by one person’s memory - in this case, brother Tom Wingfield. Williams also used the cloudy lens of perception to drape the play in melodrama and weld his many themes — abandonment, escape, illusion — to the framework of a family trapped in its own collapsing world.

The beauty of “Menagerie” is that each scene offers another layer, another prism through which to view the on-stage actions. Williams drives this point home with brutal strength in his use of the titular “glass menagerie,” one character’s collection of glass animals. The rhythm and cadence of the script works much like memory itself, exaggerating and aggrandizing some areas, downplaying other and somehow always bringing old hurts to the surface.

Communicating William’s depth to people sitting in a darkened theater through words, motion and occasional music is tough — and it is here Friday’s performance showed its unevenness. This is the first I’ve seen of director Chris Clavelli’s work and it was hard to tell where he was aiming at times. Much of the delicacy and nuance of Williams’ passages seemed lost on stage as the cast moved from cue to cue as if witless pawns in a grand game of chess.

The hour-long first act seemed to last an eternity, while the second half, most of it played out on a near-dark stage, felt mechanical and failed to push many of the emotional buttons the play is known for. It was almost as if efforts to bring the complex themes into strong focus burned away everything around them, leaving no context behind.

Sara Morsey earns high marks for her portrayal of deflated Southern belle Amanda Wingfield. You can see the beginnings of Blanche DuBois in the character (“Streetcar” would come two years later), yet Morsey owned the stage with her shrew’s affectations of forgotten glory. She exaggerated the character’s mannerisms, yet kept the needy woman within firmly grounded in reality.

Florida Rep mainstay Brendan Powers (Tom Wingfield) never lifted his beat-down dreamer of a character into fully believable status. Several of the on-stage yelling matches between Powers and Morsey showed a hint of fire; perhaps Clavelli sought to interpret Tom Wingfield as a smoldering fire — not a trapped flame. At any rate, the character only came to life for brief stretches and even Powers’ narration seemed to revel in its somber, funereal quality.

Rachel Burttram (Laura Wingfield) and John Warren (Jim O’Connor) took a good whack at the challenging material but simply came up short. Burttram seemed to pivot from one to the other of her character’s neuroses, leaving her Laura without the inner core of strength Williams intended and depriving the play of its emotional heart. Warren meanwhile reads his character as a flamboyant, loutish, unappealing and almost brutish cad that felt like a wrecking ball crashing through the second act instead of the exotic and mysterious stranger Williams intended.

Jim Hunter and his entire crew obviously spent an enormous amount of time creating a spectacular vision of the urban Depression era — including a fire-escape that makes use of every inch of the stage and then some. The lighting — including a large chunk of a second act that is lit only indirectly from candlelight and sources that would shine into the apartment — is perfect. One quibble: The set dressings — the furniture, lamps, accessories — while period appropriate, seemed entirely too “new” to easily square with Williams’ vision of a virtually destitute family at war with itself as the Great Depression raged outside its door.

Despite the uneven nature, the production certainly has it attractions. The words of Tennessee Williams never a disappoint and Morsey’s pitch-perfect performance as a faded flower fighting her wilt with every fiber of her being shouldn’t be missed.

E-mail Chris Silk at csilk@naplenews.com

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