Troupe captures Williams masterpiece’s fragile beauty

Cherie Corinne Rice plays Amanda Wingfield while Will Shaw is Tom Wingfield in The Light Fantastic Theater Co.’s traveling production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” This picture was taken earlier this year at a performance in one of New York City’s boroughs.

By Ellen Booraem

STONINGTON — Less is more.

Tennessee Williams discovered this in 1945, when “The Glass Menagerie” hit Broadway with Laurette Taylor as embattled mother Amanda Wingfield. Williams’ stage directions called for projected images and silent movie titles behind the action, but the director said no. The playwright acknowledged later that “the extraordinary power of Miss Taylor’s performance made it suitable to have the utmost simplicity in the physical production.”

The same could be said for the production mounted by Opera House Arts at Burnt Cove Church Community Center. The Light Fantastic Theater Company, a traveling troupe that performs at nontraditional venues such as prisons and nursing homes, has stripped the staging to bare essentials: four crates, four pillows, and four extraordinarily powerful actors.

The play is performed with house lights on, offering “a space to bask in what unites us,” Director Per Janson writes in program notes. Williams has Amanda’s son Tom talk to us as narrator and a live musician also breaks “the fourth wall.”  So it’s up to the actors to create the illusion of the claustrophobic 1930s apartment where Amanda presides. On opening night last week, they did that in seconds.

Most theatergoers have seen “The Glass Menagerie” at least once, if not two or three times.  Do your best to erase your history, especially any memories of dear, awful Amanda, who drives the play with her compulsion to find a “gentleman caller” for her awkward daughter.

In the uneasy 1930s, the Wingfields — Amanda, 23-year-old son Tom and 24-year-old daughter Laura — share a dingy St. Louis apartment accessible only by a fire escape. Tom, an aspiring writer, is stuck in a warehouse job, providing for his mother and sister.  Laura, lamed by “pleurosis” (pleurisy) in her teen years and humiliated by the “clumping” of her leg brace in high school, has retreated to a private world peopled by her family and a collection of glass figurines, the menagerie of the title.

A Southern belle deserted by her husband, Amanda is petrified of the future — especially Laura’s — and finds solace in memories of her girlhood “gentleman callers.” When Laura’s nerves expel her from secretarial school, Amanda vows to find her daughter a husband. She goads Tom into bringing home a “gentleman caller.” The evening does not go as planned.

Amanda is a horror of a mother, setting standards her children do not share and cannot reach. But Cherie Corinne Rice finds the warmth in this tortured lady, bringing out the love behind the frantic delusions.

Sylvia Kates, who plays Laura, chatted with audience members as they arrived opening night. This made her transformation into the fragile, luminous Laura particularly impressive — even her body shape seemed to change.

Hard to take your eyes off the women in this play, but the male actors hold their own. As Tom, Will Shaw conveys the rising panic of a young man whose life is slipping away. We understand why he has to save himself, also why his decisions haunt him. Jedadiah Schultz, the Gentleman Caller, must be exactly what Williams envisioned: a golden boy clinging to hope, blindly ambitious in a way familiar to those of us whose grandparents survived the 30s.

You may think this play’s been done to death. Nope.

The production continues at 7 p.m. Friday-Sunday July 7-9, at the Burnt Cove Church Community Center at 17 Airport Road in Stonington. Tickets prices range $20-$40. To reserve seats, call 367-2788. Deer Isle students go free.

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