Review: The fragility of ‘The Glass Menagerie’

“The Glass Menagerie,” Tennessee Williams’ great memory play, boasts one of the stage’s great characters, too – the fierce and fiery Amanda Wingfield. But Amanda, already out of hand in the script, has also gotten out of hand as a character. She’s a vehicle for tours-de-force. And when she overwhelms “The Glass Menagerie,” mowing down its fragile ensemble composed also of her restless son Tom, her supremely shy daughter and a gentleman caller who comes to dinner, the play is not about entrapment and escape. It’s about Amanda.

That’s not what happens to the production by Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company, which opened Thursday night in Center City. But almost. And it’s not all the doing of E. Ashley Izard, an actress I’ve frequently enjoyed in Quintessence productions in Mount Airy. Her Amanda has plenty of the fury, and sometimes feels like an oppressively grating caricature, as if Izard were playing the part Super Big and all alone for an audition. Other times – particularly in the second half, when the production takes a turn that sets it on the right track – Izard seems genuinely into the character, and we can perceive her Amanda as a real person.

But she is greatly stunted, almost throughout the play, by director Joshua Browns’ inscrutable staging. Browns often places Izard on the opposite side of the stage from the person she’s railing at, and not only that – she faces away from her target, speaking into nothingness. This pulls her out of the play, turning her into a solo performer.

In two scenes this is particularly mystifying. The first comes in a major showdown between Amanda and her daughter Laura, a young woman who is disabled with a slight limp. Amanda discovers that her daughter, who has no purpose in life and doesn’t seem able to face the world, has dropped out of business college. Amanda is enraged. Laura withers. And all this, without Amanda looking her daughter in the eye.

The second comes in one of the play’s gentler moments, when Amanda and her son Tom stand on a fire escape and make wishes on the moon. Here, they’re beside each other, but Amanda speaks only to the audience. We know there’s a disconnect among the family members, but the staging sometimes puts the characters in their own separate plays.

Even when the production becomes impressive as it moves into its second half, this “Menagerie” suffers from something no one involved would be able to fix: the air-conditioning system in the Off-Broad Street Theatre, in the lower level of a church at 17th Street and Sansom. A loud, knocking rumble accompanies the play from beginning to end, as if “Menagerie” were set on a subway car and not in a residence along a St. Louis alley. (The scenery by S. Cory Palmer is an appropriately low-rent place with a living room, an outdoor space, and a back-set that gives us the feel of urban space. It’s nicely lit by Tim Martin, whose name is not in the program’s production list.)

The actors ignore the rumble, and move through even the quieter parts of the play at a successful sound level (Daniel Ison’s sound design). But in the audience, it’s hard to dismiss the racket – particularly if you’re on the left side of the seating area, where the vent sits.

Allen Radway plays Tom, the son, who is the play’s narrator. Tom gets Williams’ most eloquent writing, and Radway – the head of Simpatico Theatre Project – knows just how to deliver it, sometimes slowly and always precisely. It’s a remarkably effective reading. Isa St. Clair is Laura, the daughter, and she plays the role as a woman so intensely shy, she’s sometimes zombie-like – a forceful rendering, often without words. While Amanda and Tom argue on and off through the play, Laura cowers. St. Clair is a champion cowerer.

Jamison Foreman, a talented theater artist and a musician as well, takes the role of Jim, the gentleman caller — Amanda’s last hope for her daughter’s future. The part is sometimes fuzzily focused as a minor role, and to director Browns’ credit, here it’s given a sort of spotlight that Foreman grabs and in doing so, shows just how important the character is. The quiet scene between Jim and Laura, when he brings her out of her thick and encompassing shell, is here a little gem.

 

“The Glass Menagerie,” produced by Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company, runs through August 24 at Off-Broad Street Theatre, on Sansom Street near 17th Street. 610-202-7878 or commonwealthclassictheatre.org.

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